“Phir se athlete waali life shuru ho gayi hai.”

That is what Neeraj Chopra had said in December last year. The first ever track and field Olympic champion in India’s history, had taken time off after the highs of Tokyo. The many felicitations, interviews, television appearances, brand assignments, and illness too thrown in the mix, had all taken up his time in the days and weeks after the Olympic Games. It was, without doubt, some well earned rest time.

But away from the sport, Neeraj said he put on close to 12-13 kgs because he went all out eating his favourite food items, after having to stay away from the stuff he loved. So when he went to his training stint to USA, the focus was all back on training well, putting in the hard yards, sticking to his daily routines. “I am back to spending the normal life of an athlete, where you only focus on sports and nothing else,” he had said, looking leaner and stronger.

And now, with his sights set on World Athletics Championships Oregon 2022 (15 Jul - 24 Jul 2022), Neeraj returns to competitive action a little more than 10 months since that unforgettable night in Japan. For the ‘athlete waali life’ he has been leading in recent times, the first official test comes in Finland.

The event that will witness Neeraj’s retutn to action is the Paavo Nurmi Games on Tuesday in Turku. It is part of the World Athletics Continental Tour Gold series and it is held in the javelin-mad country of Finland in honour of Nurmi, one of the greatest Olympians of all time. This will be the first time Neeraj competes in Turku.

When Anderson Peters, the Grenadian who is undefeated in all seven of his competitions so far this season, spoke about the javelin competition at this event, he started off with a quip about the Mustang that is at stake if an athlete crosses 93.09m. He then went on to say how this is the toughest event of the year so far as it witnesses the return of Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra, before listing out the other big names in the field.

That, in essence, is what Neeraj has done to the sport of javelin and whether he likes it or not, he is going to be the man every other athlete in the field will want to get the better of. Pressure comes as a privilege.

Peters will of course be the man to beat in Turku. After missing out on qualifying for the final in Tokyo, the 2019 World Champion has started the 2022 season in beast-mode and currently holds the world-leading Caribbean record of 93.07m that he registered in Doha. According to World Athletics, the nine best throws of Peter’s career have come in the past month.

And while Anderson Peters quipped about having his eyes set on the Mustang, Neeraj said he already owns one back in India, but won’t mind the new model.

But Neeraj isn’t and shouldn’t be too concerned with what the rest of the field is doing right away. Returning to competitive action against a bunch of athletes who are all warmed up, so to speak, the focus for the Indian star is starting with a mark close to his best. Around 86-87-88m would be the kind of mark we could see in the opening event for him.

“I don’t take pressure of distance. Peters and [Jakub] Valdech must be working hard and so doing well. It is also my dream to cross 90m and will try to do that this year in some competition,” Neeraj said at a virtual interaction facilitated by JSW Sports from his training base in Turkey last month.

“I know competition is tough and growing. It also depends on the day’s performance, weather and other conditions, how we manage them. I normally don’t think about surpassing anybody’s performance or record. I just go out to give my best.

“I don’t have to hit 90m straightway, 86 or 87m at the start of season will be fine.”

But the overall target is clear. Right from the restart of his training last season to his recent interaction, Neeraj has made it evident that the next milestone in sight for him is the 90m mark. That is almost essential now in a season where his competitors have stared off in fine style.

“The gap is of about 2m. It’s not too less also but I don’t think it’s impossible because my training is good. I don’t think about it much but it’s a barrier that I’d like to breach this year,” Neeraj had sad in December last year, looking ahead to 2022. Neeraj clinched the gold in Tokyo with a throw of 87.58m and his personal best is 88.07m.

If the Asian Games was also there on the calendar, where Neeraj is the 2018 gold medallist, the season was going to extend till September and hence the decision was made to start in mid-June. But given the Asian Games has been postponed, Neeraj added that he could have perhaps picked one more event to tune up for the World Championships. But even now, with around 40 days left for the marquee event (July 21 is the javelin qualification in Oregon) that he considers the main target for the year, there is sufficient time to peak.

He has three events lined up in a couple of weeks. After Turku on 14 June, it is a familiar event for him with the Kuortane Games on 18 June and then a much-awaited Diamond League appearance on 30 June in Stockholm, if things go per plan.

“My main target this year is to do well at the World Championships. Then there is the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham immediately (July 28 to August 8) where I will defend my gold (won in 2018 CWG),” the 24-year-old had said.

Post CWG, based on form and fitness and how he fares at Stockholm this month, his team will take a call on the Monaco Diamond League (August 10) which happens immediately after Birmingham 2022. The Lausanne-leg of the Diamond League on August 26 is another event on radar, and potentially closing out the season with the Diamond League final in Zurich in September.

And more than pressure, more than targets, Neeraj has reiterated that the goal is to remain fit and follow the process, avoiding injuries.

“My aim is also to end the season injury free. I am starting [in events] 40-45 days before the World Championships so that I can peak there. I am going to have three events next month in the space of just over two weeks. Initially, I had planned to compete in Doha Diamond League (May 13) but dropped later. I could have started a bit early had we known that Asian Games would be postponed,” Neeraj had said last month.

And with the attention turning towards competitive action, and eyes on 90m and hopefully beyond, Neeraj said the key to improving all areas was by fine tuning the techniques, instead of making wholesale changes and risk injuries going for a huge throw.

“I have started throwing in training, two throwing sessions in a week. I also do sprinting, lifting weights, jumping sessions. All the focus is on technique. I work with medicine balls too. I have started working on my technique, my runway, picking up speed and how the blocking leg needs to be. I don’t need to make major changes, just working on things like which angle I have to throw, where I have to start my runway. I don’t want to get injured while doing major changes,” he said.

In the lead up to this season start, Neeraj trained at the Gloria Sports Arena in Antalya, Turkey along with his coach Klaus Bartonietz. There he also had the chance to meet the likes of Johannes Vetter, 2016 Rio Olympics gold medallist Thomas Rohler as well as world record holder Jan Zelezny of Czech Republic, who is currently into coaching. Neeraj, in one of the questions about whether he actually feels like a superstar now who has done something huge, referred to how Zelezny, whom got to speak with in Turkey, behaves just normally without showing he is a former Olympic champion and world record holder. “If Zelezny doesn’t consider himself to be a superstar, why do I have to think that way,” he said with a smile.

But ultimately, with so much talk about the pressure of being an Olympic champion, Neeraj signed off from his interaction with the media in May on a light-hearted, yet, important note. “Ten months have passed. I am also excited more than anything to just return to competition, to see how I go. Pressure hai ki nahi aur responsibility hai ki nahi, sach mein tabhi pata chalega whether these things are there or if I will be able to perform the way I did before. Let’s see on the field.”

The Olympic champion will be back on the runaway hoping to take flight towards the World Championships, but armed with a patient, process-oriented approach before take off.

Starting list for Paavo Nurmi Games

Top 15 throws this season men's javelin

Rank Mark Competitor Nat Pos Venue Date
1 93.07 Anderson PETERS GRN 1 Suhaim bin Hamad Stadium, Doha (QAT) 13 MAY 2022
2 90.88 Jakub VADLEJCH CZE 2 Suhaim bin Hamad Stadium, Doha (QAT) 13 MAY 2022
3 90.75 Anderson PETERS GRN 1 Blankers-Koen Stadion, Hengelo (NED) 06 JUN 2022
4 89.54 Julian WEBER GER 2 Blankers-Koen Stadion, Hengelo (NED) 06 JUN 2022
5 89.07 Keshorn WALCOTT TTO 3 Blankers-Koen Stadion, Hengelo (NED) 06 JUN 2022
6 87.88 Anderson PETERS GRN 1 Mestský Stadion, Ostrava (CZE) 31 MAY 2022
7 87.53 Aliaksei KATKAVETS BLR 1 RTSOP, Minsk (BLR) 08 FEB 2022
8 87.48 Aliaksei KATKAVETS BLR 1 Regional Sport Complex, Brest (BLR) 29 APR 2022
9 87.32 Andreas HOFMANN GER 1 Leichtathletikarena, Eisenstadt (AUT) 02 JUN 2022
10 86.52 Andreas HOFMANN GER 1 ETSV Stadion, Offenburg (GER) 15 MAY 2022
11 86.09 Julian WEBER GER 3 Suhaim bin Hamad Stadium, Doha (QAT) 13 MAY 2022
12 85.85 Anderson PETERS GRN 1 x-bionic sphere, Šamorín (SVK) 09 JUN 2022
13 85.64 Johannes VETTER GER 2 ETSV Stadion, Offenburg (GER) 15 MAY 2022
14 85.50 Jakub VADLEJCH CZE 1 Stadion Juliska, Praha (CZE) 06 JUN 2022
15 85.02 Julian WEBER GER 1 Paul-Greifzu-Stadion, Dessau (GER) 25 MAY 2022
As recognised by World Athletics

Paavo Nurmi Games, which will mark Neeraj Chopra’s return to action will be live on June 14th, Tuesday, 9:30 PM onwards on Sports18 and Voot Select in India

Also read:

A mighty eighty seven point five eight: Thank you, Neeraj Chopra

Neeraj Chopra, the first... hopefully the first of many

Watch: Full replay of Neeraj Chopra’s gold medal-winning javelin throw final at Tokyo Olympics

(Neeraj Chopra quotes from JSW Sports-organised press interaction, as reported by PTI)