Neeraj Chopra looks remarkably different from the time he first shot to the limelight in 2016, when, as an 18-year-old, he became the first Indian athlete to win a World Championship gold medal – at the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland – in the javelin throw event. The pimples on his cheeks have vanished, as has his shy and nervous approach to people unknown to him, such as the media. His body, stronger and sturdier than before, suits his 5ft 8in frame better. And his hair, falling an inch below his ears, giving him quite the rock star look, makes Chopra appear like the complete modern-day athlete.
“I know the commentators have referred to me as ‘Chopra from India with the long hair’, but I didn’t plan this look. It’s just grown like this, and I think people recognise me with it,” says Neeraj Chopra.
Recognition, in fact, is something that the 20-year-old javelin thrower isn’t completely comfortable with just yet. While he shot to fame with his world juniors gold medal three years ago, it was the gold at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, in March that made Chopra a superstar.
“The Commonwealth Games is a big deal for our fans, I know that,” Chopra says. “Many of them have never heard of the Diamond League, which is why a CWG gold is a huge achievement for them. That’s why it was celebrated so much. People recognise me at malls and airports now and want to take pictures. I know that’s important, too, but I want to be able to roam around freely and do my job.” That’s going to be increasingly difficult though. “I had gone to the US embassy for some passport work, and three people recognised me. They wanted to take selfies. Thank god phones are not allowed in there!” he says.
Breaking new ground
The recognition and the pressure of expectation haven’t affected Chopra yet. In fact, it’s something he’s learning to handle better. And that has shown in the tremendous season he’s had this year, one in which he first set a new national record with an 85.94m throw at the Federation Cup in Patiala, bettered his mark at the CWG with 86.47m and then went one step further – shattering his personal best and the national record – with a sensational 87.43m throw at the Diamond League in Doha, where he finished fourth. If Chopra missed out on a medal in Doha, it’s only because the German trio of Olympic champion Thomas Rohler, Johannes Vetter and Andreas Hofmann worked really hard to cross the 90m mark and keep the 20-year-old Indian at bay. And to think that Chopra had decided to compete “just for some experience”!
“I was planning to skip Doha,” Chopra says, “There were just too many functions and felicitations after the CWG, and I was dying to get back to training. My preparation wasn’t complete, but after the last training session I thought let’s give it a shot. I can tell you this that my body wasn’t ready, but my mind and heart were.”
That’s perhaps something what sets Chopra apart: the will and the desire to compete and, more importantly, not being overwhelmed by the world stage. “My motto is always to do my best, and not look at how much the others are throwing,” he says. “If the two competitors before me throw 90-plus, and I think ‘Chal Neeraj, tera toh ho gayaa’ (Okay Neeraj, you’re done here) even before I start, then I am already lagging behind.”
“With Neeraj, the bigger the stage is, the better he gets. His self-confidence is unchanged at competitions. He’s totally at ease and there’s this very self-assuring attitude to him,” says Mustafa Ghouse, the chief executive officer of JSW Sports, which supports Chopra with his off-season training programmes, provides him with a dedicated physio and other logistics like travel when he’s not at the national camp, and also pays him a monthly stipend.
So how does Chopra prepare for a big competition? Any superstitions? “Nothing. I just need my headphones on and really loud music to pump myself up,” he says. “It’s usually Punjabi or Haryanvi. But it has to be loud for me to disconnect from everything else that’s happening around. And I chant ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’ loudly a few times before my attempt. It helps me deal with pressure.”
It sure did at his two major competitions this year, even though the situations were very different. In Gold Coast, the Indian fans, Chopra feels, had given him the gold medal even before he had set foot on the field. “Then the pressure is to live up to the expectations that the country has from me. I can’t let the fans down,” he says. Less than a month later, the challenge in Doha was a bit different. “The Diamond League field was the best and the toughest in the world. My challenge then was against myself. My throw (of 87.43m) came in the second attempt, and then I wanted to do better. But somehow I lost my focus and my next three attempts were all fouls. I think that I got satisfied too early, so I need to learn that self-control.”
Ironing out the chinks
Chopra and national javelin throw coach Uwe Hohn – the only athlete to throw a javelin more than 100m, with a 104.80m mark in 1984 set before new specifications were introduced in 1986 – believe the 20-year-old’s technique needs work. “During my last attack, just before I throw the javelin, I put my body down in a rush,” says Chopra. “I need to keep the body back a bit so that I throw the javelin with all my power. I think it leaves a little early now.”
The other weakness identified by Hohn is that of Chopra’s throwing arm being too low. “When the arm is very low, it increases the whiplash that propels the javelin,” the 55-year-old German says. “That means more chances of hurting the shoulder or even the elbow if both aren’t fit and flexible. He’s improved, but it can get better.” With age on his side, Chopra’s craft is bound to improve. Which is why breaking the 90m barrier in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 is a realistic goal, he feels, even though his competitors, like Olympic champion Rohler, are of the opinion that it’s something Chopra can achieve this year itself. “He is really young, he is able to throw 88-90m, this year, of course,” Rohler told the Olympic Channel after the Diamond League in Doha.
“I am not in a hurry to get there,” says Chopra, who finished sixth in the Diamond League in Eugene, USA, last month with a below-par throw of 80.81m. “I am still learning. My throw in Doha was good enough for an Olympic medal, but I know that the competition is tough. Around five-six guys are throwing 90-plus at the moment, and reaching the final of the event itself is becoming tougher. It’s a matter of about 2.5m for me to get there, and I know I will. I don’t want to do it just for the heck of it. The body has its limits, too.”
Home away from home
Chopra’s current base is the Olympic Training Centre in Kuortane, Finland, with the rest of the national javelin throwers. There was no time to return to India, and he arrived there directly from the USA. “It’s been more than six-seven months now that I’ve spent time properly at home,” says Chopra, who hails from Khandra village in Haryana’s Panipat district. “The network in the village is very poor, so I can’t do video calls with them, but I call them now and then.” A break to go and relax at home will have to wait for a few months more. His participation in the next few Diamond League meets is uncertain, but Chopra will be action at the Asian Games in Djakarta in September. “People think the field at the Asian Games is weak,” he says. “But the competitors from China, Chinese Taipei and Qatar are quite good.” Qatar’s Ahmed Bader Magour, who finished seventh behind Chopra in Eugene, is expected to be his toughest competitor.
With his fellow athletes, young Neeraj Chopra has now made a home away from home for himself. Having shared common facilities while training and rehabilitating from injuries at the JSW Centre for Excellence in Bellary, Karnataka, Chopra built a support group with high jumper Tejaswin Shankar, wrestler Vinesh Phogat and boxers Nikhat Zareen and Dheeraj Rangi – all young and promising athletes who bonded when thrown in together in a space that was unknown to all of them. They’ve become so thick that they don’t forget to root for each other even when they’re training or competing in different parts of the world. Chopra, for instance, has been keeping track of Shankar, his ‘chhota bhai’, who’s on a scholarship in the USA and recently won gold at the prestigious NCAA Track and Field Championships. “It’s like our own squad,” Chopra says. “We track each other’s events and get everyone to like our social media posts.” Chopra is closest to Shankar, despite their very different backgrounds. “Tejaswin is a city boy, and educated,” Chopra says. “And I am very desi. Fully opposite. Still we are very close.”
From learning how to throw the javelin by watching videos on his cellphone to working with a legendary athlete as coach, from being a strict vegetarian to graduating to eating chicken, from having to wait for a state bus for hours to get to training with just 30 rupees in his pocket to jet-setting across the world to become an improved athlete – it’s been quite a momentous journey for Chopra.
But his core remains the same – desi, much like his favourite Indian athlete, double Olympic medallist wrestler Sushil Kumar. Chopra is pleasantly comfortable in his own skin, and is grounded. A quality that will only help him in his journey towards greatness.
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