Late on Thursday night, Neeraj Chopra completed a set. The 24-year-old, on a cool evening in Zurich, threw his javelin 88.44 meters – and two more throws further than any other competitor on the night – to become the first Indian to win the Diamond League Finals. And with it, he became the first from the country to win a medal at every major event there is in his sport.
“I always thought the Diamond League (Finals) was a big competition. The trophy should be there in India, and finally that happened last night,” he said at a virtual press conference arranged by the Athletics Federation of India on Friday.
In 2016, he first announced himself on the global stage by winning gold at the U20 Junior World Championships in Poland. A year later he won gold at the Asian Championships in Bhubaneshwar. In 2018, he won gold at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. Then at the Tokyo Olympics last year, he became the second Indian and first in athletics ever to win a gold medal.
Celebrations from his Tokyo triumph and illness forced him to end 2021 season early. He delayed his return to action this season with the original schedule being packed, with Asian Games on the back of other major events. But when he did start, he picked up the pace quickly. His early season form saw him rewrite the national record, with current best at 89.94m that he threw in Stockholm. And soon he won silver at the World Championships in Eugene, USA. Finally, after a return from injury, he won the Diamond League event in Lausanne to help him qualify for the Finals in Zurich.
Amidst his return this year though was the groin injury he picked up at Eugene – which forced him out of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. But he returned well in time to make his mark at the two events in Switzerland, and officially complete the medal set.
While happy with his own performances, Chopra insisted that there is a need for more exposure across the board at these events for Indian athletes.
“I want more athletes from India to compete in top tournaments, lot of team from other countries were participating in the Diamond League Finals. It will help them in terms of experience too,” the 24-year-old said.
As he looks forward to the next season though, another event has crept into the horizon – the National Games.
The Indian Express on Wednesday reported that the Indian Olympic Association has instructed all national sports federations to ensure all ‘eminent athletes’ will be present to compete at the National Games, being help across six cities in Gujarat, September 29 to October 12.
Chopra, who had been looking forward to taking some time off to rest, recover and prepare for next year, is unsure if he’ll compete.
“The plan was that Zurich would be the last competition. Now suddenly the date for the National Games has come up,” he told reporters in the interaction organised by Athletics Federation of India.
“I had spoken to the coach (Klaus Bartonietz) and he said I need to rest. I just recovered from a groin injury. There was a plan to go on a vacation, my family and friends are here for a week or so. I won’t be able to train. So, (competing at the National Games) will be a bit risky. I’d like to start focusing on next year.”
In 2023, Chopra will be lining up to defend his Asian Games gold medal, and there’s also the World Championships in Budapest, where he has a chance to go one better than the silver he won in July.
Though he’s hinted that he may skip the National Games, he did remember competing at the event the last time it took place, in Kerala in 2015.
“Competing in the national games was a big thing for me because everyone was there. Main usko apna Commonwealth Games, Asian Games maan ke gaya tha, (I considered it my Commonwealth Games and Asian Games) because all the big athletes were there. That was a very good experience. My throw then was decent for my age then. Through that I was taken into the camp and that helped me,” he said.
“At that time, I used to train in Panchkula. We used to have to cook our own food there, and the javelin too was (not the best). We’d use it but there was an injury worry.
“It was challenging because we had to train, then cook, then train in the evening and then cook food again. In the camp we could use that time to rest and recover. The javelins were also better and that was advantageous for me.”
Chopra had first come to the attention of the federation when he competed and won gold at the National Inter District Junior Athletics Meet at Haridwar in 2012.
“This is where NIDJAM and the National Games helped.”
It’s fair to say he rose the ladder steadily since then to be where he is in 2022.
‘No 90m pressure’
At the end of the season where he added a fair few firsts to his name, Chopra insisted that the 90m mark was not a pressure point for him, it was important to finish in good positions in events, more than the measurement.
“I am not disappointed at all, it’s (90m) just a magical mark. It all depends on how you perform on that day, how you handle the situation... If you touch 90m and don’t win, then also it doesn’t matter. So there is no 90m pressure on me, no disappointment, when it has to happen, it will happen,” he said.