Neeraj Chopra was struggling. In three throws, the first had been a foul, India’s hotshot javelin star had not breached 80m. The javelin was yet to do his bidding at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar that July 2017 evening at the Asian Athletics Championships. A man, most likely an official with access to the track, walked up to Neeraj and blurted out, “India ki izzat bachalo (Protect India’s honour).” In the heat of competition, Neeraj was flustered. “I did not know how to respond to the stranger,” he recalls. “I probably mumbled that I was trying my best.”
Fans had taken the gold medal for granted, having fallen in love with his exploits, most notably the junior world record throw of 86.48m in Poland on July 23, 2016. He still rates that as one of his best throws.
After the initial struggle, Neeraj turned it on in Bhubaneswar, unleashing the best throw with his final effort. His sixth throw soared to 85.23m and landed him the gold medal. The man who had placed the country’s izzat in Neeraj’s hand posed for pictures with him. “He had a huge smile,” the athlete says after winding up an evening practice session at the Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS), built and run by JSW Sports, in Vijayanagar, a town in northern Karnataka.
This throwback is perhaps a glimpse of how invested Indians are in the Haryana youngster, who is not even 22 years old. He generates excitement because his talent and feats place him in a rarefied zone admired as world class in an Olympic sport.
Since the day the fresh-faced Neeraj captured the nation’s imagination, he has gone from strength to strength, continually throwing hard, fast and long. He grew his hair (some cheeky young fans and athletes call him Mowgli, which is a far cry from being called Sarpanch as a chubby pre-teen) and held his own while competing with the big guns on the global stage. Then came a dreaded interruption. His elbow started troubling him.
The javelin puts its best practitioners, who push the boundaries of stress, under intense scrutiny. You can try and wrap the athlete in cotton wool, but the sport — that involves running, side-on crossover striding, bracing and harnessing the force for a whiplash release with the throwing arm — will always punish the minutest imbalance. Over the course of a single attempt, there are multiple moments where a thrower tempts damage to muscle, tendon and ligament.
Neeraj underwent surgery on his throwing right hand in Mumbai on May 2. Dr. Dinshaw Pardiwala, an authority on sports orthopaedics and the go-to expert for many athletes laid low by injuries, removed bone fragments from his elbow joint. Neeraj’s flight hit its first air pocket.
What went wrong
Neeraj is working on his rehabilitation at IIS under the watchful eyes of a close-knit set of experts who have monitored him over the years. Watching him painstakingly work on his comeback, the signs are that the javelin hasn’t punished its prodigal son, but it has definitely warned him.
How much has this phase tested him, frustrated him? Has it taught him, made him stronger? Has it made him cry? “I haven’t cried yet, but I feel this will end up teaching me something valuable,” he says.
He doesn’t hesitate to address the elbow question. “I started off-season training in October 2018 (after the Asian Games). It was a lot of heavy training. My shoulders had tightened. I was not using it properly and the elbow was being pushed again and again in throws.”
The talk finds it way to one throw that fans gush over, his national record of 88.06m set on the way to the 2018 Asian Games gold in Jakarta. He does not particularly like this one. “My strength level was high during the Asian Games, but I feel I was technically weak on that throw. The flight path of the javelin was bad. The release angle was not what it should have been. It veered to the edge of the sector and was close to being a foul,” he says. “I knew what it could have been (with a better release).”
This leads to a follow-up on his junior world record. He talks of that throw with love, about the point at which being in awe of other athletes stopped. “To be honest, I did not expect to throw that far. But everything came together. It also showed me I had it in me.”
“Even I am waiting,” says Neeraj. “Jab 100 percent khul ke kar sakta hun (when I feel I can throw freely)... when the moment comes, I will feel it. I will know.”
Gone is the impetuous Neeraj of 2012, when he broke his wrist in a fall on a basketball court. He cut off the cast in 28 days even though the doctor had advised him to keep it on for at least 40 days.
“Doubt in an athlete’s mind brings fear. The mind will be trapped by fear of injury or recurrence. I feel I will return to action soon, but I will not take any risk and rush the comeback. That’s it.” It is clear this is a non-negotiable point.
What about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? “Everyone who knows me knows how serious I am about the Olympics,” he says. The fire rages within. Head to his Twitter account and find pinned four lines in Hindi that can be read as: When the desire for success does not let you sleep, when nothing feels good except hard work, when you don’t get exhausted after relentless work, know that history is in the making.
“I love those lines, but I am not obsessed. If I have to achieve something, the motivation has to be in me. No one needs to push me. I push myself the hardest,” says Neeraj. “Balance is important. I love what I do and I also live life beyond it,” he adds, showcasing the classic Haryanvi trait of giving an uncomplicated perspective to so-called existential questions. “I am very aggressive during training and competition. Off it, I take it easy.”
Neeraj’s sport is complex, he keeps the rest simple. For instance, how did he handle the days after the surgery? If you are looking for a dark story of an uncertain mind playing tricks, Neeraj does not have one. Instead, he offers a tale of shopping therapy. “I hit the malls. I bought clothes. Daily jaata tha (I went every day).”
Neeraj is a recognised face and he appreciates the fans. “They are like friends. They give you energy,” he says, deftly sidestepping a question on female attention.
Ishaan Marwaha, who possibly spends more time with Neeraj than the athlete’s family members, attests to the thrower’s drive in pursuit of sporting excellence and uncluttered way of life off the field.
Team engineering comeback
Ishaan has been Neeraj’s personal physiotherapist since 2017. “Neeraj doesn’t need spoon-feeding. He is very disciplined,” says Ishaan. Neeraj, however, does not accept everything at face value. “You need to explain to him why we should do something and the outcomes we can expect. He understands.”
Ishaan has worked with top wrestlers Yogeshwar Dutt and Bajrang Punia, but Neeraj’s needs are different. “Managing him is more complex given the requirements of his sport.”
Ishaan talks about the time both realised they had a problem. “We had noticed the discomfort. The elbow is not meant to be under that much stress. Now, we have to work even more cautiously. Neeraj has to understand his body even more. He is very flexible. He needs to continue being smooth. We are not pushing any phase of rehab.”
Dr. Kevin Caillaud, head of exercise physiology and head of nutrition at IIS, has been keeping an eagle eye on Neeraj. “He is strong because he is a thrower, but he is not the strongest javelin thrower. He relies a lot on his flexibility, the fluidity of his movement more than pure strength.”
Dr. Caillaud talks of muscle adaptation and ligament adaptation taking different times. “Ligaments, tendons and joints take four-five times more time to adapt.” Simply put, ligaments and tendons play catch-up with muscles. If you push too much, too quick, it can lead to a joint or ligament injury.
“That’s why in addition to a well-designed rehabilitation, Neeraj was following a specific collagen peptides supplementation before each session involving his elbow to speed up soft tissues adaptation.
He sees Neeraj on the global podium. When? How soon? He responds vigorously. “Who cares! Neeraj could be the best javelin thrower in the world. He could be at the top of the world for 10 years, 12 years and it will be a wonderful career.”
He has dragged the conversation and India’s obsession with Neeraj for Tokyo 2020 to the Paris Olympics in 2024 and the 2028 Los Angeles edition.
Dr. Caillaud has diligently tracked Neeraj's elbow extension strength during the rehabilitation. “It is the strength measured at 90 degrees isometrically. So, it is only a strength index used, among others, as a readiness marker to start throwing. As soon as he throws, this will be the best power assessment possible,” he says.
Neeraj’s elbow extension strength has improved to a point that excites his minders.
Spencer Mackay, head of strength and conditioning at IIS, says, “The physiology department worked on some markers of progress and (Neeraj’s) rehab is on track. I am very happy with his progress.”
Mackay, who is Scottish, says working with Neeraj through this phase has been stimulating for him in different ways. “I reflect on what he was three years ago. He is an entirely different individual now. This has developed through his training abroad. His aptitude for training has improved significantly. He is so much more aware of what he requires from a technical point of view and a physical point of view.”
Neeraj has worked during rehab on strengthening his lower body. This is a deliberate move, acknowledges Mackay. Indian throwers and coaches swear by a maxim: haathon se feet, taangon se metres. In thrower parlance, it means increased arm strength will see distances thrown improve in feet, whereas increased leg strength will yield improvement in metres. Neeraj endorses this.
Mind space, pressure
Elbow extension strength and 90 degrees interest Neeraj more at this point than the question that trails him — when will he hit 90m? “ Dur phenkne mein aur bahut dur phenkne mein bahut fark hai (There is a huge difference in throwing far and throwing really far),” he says. He is in no hurry. “Even if I do 100m some day, I would want to progress slowly and steadily.”
Patience is his friend. “Performance is fine. Medals too are great. You feel happy for a while. But deep satisfaction also comes from training. After winning, you have to get back to work.”
Neeraj still watches videos of the big daddy of javelin, retired Czech legend Jan Zelezny, who holds the world record at 98.48m set in 1996. “Not YouTube. I had his videos on my phone,” says Neeraj, addressing a misconception that he learned to throw by watching YouTube. “ Hamare yahaan YouTube chalta hi nahin thaa . Logon ne chala diya hai (YouTube did not run where I am from. People have spread this version).”
The YouTube story could be a spin doctored by someone aware of the incredible journey of Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego, who honed his craft watching videos on the site.
The blossoming of Neeraj has coincided with the rise of a bunch of German throwers, including 2016 Olympics champion Thomas Rohler, and Johannes Vetter.
Neeraj has trained in Germany and shares his learning. “The Germans get to technical proficiency quicker. I got insights into TRX (total resistance exercises) training, balancing on Swiss balls. They are very effective.”
Neeraj has competed creditably with the Germans. At the Doha Diamond League meet in May 2018, Rohler, Vetter and fellow German Andreas Hoffman threw above 90m. Neeraj finished fourth with a strong 87.43m. Neeraj is an athletics celebrity, and that brings unique pressures, such as being asked for opinion on India-Pakistan niggles, which possibly could be because he is in the Indian Army.
“There is hype, media, news. We are asked which medal we will bring. Getting trapped in sideshows and taking pressure is of no use. I compete with myself. Once I get to the ground on the day of competition, everything else ceases to matter,” he says.
Neeraj has been asked about being in the army and his flowing hair not being in sync. “I am playing now. The day I wear the uniform, I will cut my hair.”
Away from the public gaze, Neeraj is appreciative of the goodwill he has. “I have seen people write off athletes going through a lean spell, or those struggling due to various issues. But I know that people have not given up on me and it feels great.”
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