Only the second Indian to bring home the precious metal (in an individual sport) from the quadrennial Games, Neeraj also managed to do the unthinkable by winning it in his very first outing at the Olympics. For most sportspersons, participating in the Olympics is a dream. To win a medal there is the pinnacle of their sporting achievements. For the 24-year-old javelin thrower from Haryana, though, it is just one stop ticked off in a bucket list of achievements.

And he is now aiming even higher in 2022 while remaining firmly rooted to ground realities.

The biggest of his targets right now is breaching the elusive 90m mark. “I have always talked about the 90m mark, and my focus remains firmly on that. While winning a medal is one thing, managing a good distance is completely different. It is an important barrier. The best in the world have got it and it is important for me to personally consider myself a genuine world-level thrower,” Neeraj told Sportstar .

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He should know. German Johannes Vetter, who failed to make the top-eight in Tokyo, has gone past it 17 times. So far, 20 men have managed to do it. And Neeraj is aware the competition will only get tougher hereon. “Of course, there is Vetter, there are others like (Thomas) Rohler, (Keshorn) Walcott, and (Anderson) Peters. So, medals won’t be easy. The distance, though, is in my hands,” he said.

But it remains his desire, not an obsession. “Let’s be clear, it is not a fixed mark. It can be 89.99m or 90.1m and they will be equally important but yes, the 90m is the standard for a world-class thrower,” he said while adding in the same breath that he wasn’t going to miss the tree for the woods.

“When I train, I train at my 100 percent, and then when I compete, I try to do my best as per my training. I don’t throw thinking of the result or the distance. I believe if we always give our 100 percent, the result we want eventually comes. Even in 2021, my preparations were good and with a combination of little luck and conditions, I could have done it last year itself. But like I said, I don’t keep thinking of it all the time. Javelin is something where how you feel in competition is very important. It will come when it has to come,” he smiled.

The year ahead will be a busy but important one for Neeraj and he is still not sure of all the competitions he will be participating in — even though as the biggest Indian sporting hero now, he will be expected to turn out at every domestic and international fixture by the fans and federations alike. “There are big events in 2022 — the Commonwealth and Asian Games, the Diamond Leagues. There will also be the World Championships. If everything goes well, I am confident of doing better this year,” he explained.

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He, too, is concerned about the looming shadow of Covid. With cases rising again and the world going into gradual lockdown for the third time in as many years, Neeraj’s concern is valid. The absence of competitions for more than a year hit the sporting world hard and Indians, in particular, with travel curbs. While he is lucky to have managed to reach Chula Vista High Olympic Training Center in the USA before things got worse — it has been his training base for a month now and will continue to be so for the near future — Neeraj knows travelling for competitions may not be easy.

The other concern will be to avoid any serious injury. His elbow surgery in 2019 forced him out of action for almost a year and the long recovery period almost put him in doubt for Tokyo Olympics before the Games were postponed by a year.

Right now, though, he is training at his optimum. “ Abhi to full kheench rakha hai training and I am feeling very positive for a good 2022,” he admitted.

He remained non-committal of his events, though, relegating that decision to his coach Klaus Bartoniez — whose contract has reportedly been extended till Paris 2024 — keeping in mind the optimum workload to sustain through the year. This means while he would love to be back in India for the domestic meets including the National Championships, nothing has been confirmed yet.