It is known that the great athletes, in any sport, are good at anticipating. They are one step ahead on the field, they have those extra few seconds – even microseconds – more to act or react.

Neeraj Chopra, in his first media interaction of 2023, showed it wasn’t just on-field. At the very start of the virtual meeting, he anticipated someone or the other was going to bring up the 90m mark. So when a question was put forth to him about resolutions for the new year, with a cheeky smile, the Tokyo Olympics gold medallist said, “Hopefully, aap sabhi ka jo 90m woh hai... woh bhi poora ho jaaye [Hopefully, I can achieve the 90m mark that you all want].”

Of course, he had his tongue firmly in cheek when he said that. He has been asked about the 90m mark in a few different ways in the last year or so, and he has always maintained that he was trying for that mark. Indeed his personal best came in 2022, when he threw the javelin 89.94m at the Diamond League meet in Stockholm. It is not 90m on paper but imagine, it is just 0.06m (6 cm) off it. Yet somehow, that mark has become a national obsession of sorts.

In all seriousness, Chopra understands it too. It is indeed a target of his, not just something followers of Indian athletics and fans want. He’d later go on to say (when asked if he was preparing for 90m+ this year, again), “The preparations were great last year too, for crossing that mark. When I threw 89.94, if my foot was just 20 cms or so ahead as I had the space, I could have crossed 90. You all have been asking about it for long and I am also waiting.. Woh poora toh karenge, koi dikkat nahi hain. Usse acha bhi karenge [we will fufill that, no worries, and do better than 90m too].”

And in another question (yes, you get the gist) about 90m, Chopra was asked whether at this point it bothers him that people speak about this mark so much.

Kitna farak reh gaya? 6 cm bas [How much distance is left? Just 6 cm],” he said with a disarming smile again. “But it is a magical mark for any top javelin thrower. Whenever you speak of top javelin athletes you say ‘bhai, 90m maar rakhe hain usne’ [he has achieved the 90m mark]; but I’m not bothered about the pressure of expectations. I know I am close. It will happen when it has to. It could have happened last year or the year before, but maybe God has kept a perfect time and place for that, but let’s see. All I can do is prepare even better than last years, when it has to happen, it will happen.”

Off season

It is inescapable every time Chopra speaks to the media, that he keeps insisting that all he can do is improving his technique in training. Competition day could go any way... the weather might not be in favour, the air density, the body stiffness, the runway conditions. There are just too many variables that one can’t account for. And so once again, as he gets ready for the 2023 season, Chopra has been focussing on building himself gradually. In the off season, he had put on some weight so naturally the first target in the initial fortnight or so was to bring that back down. Chopra’s off-season training at the Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, along with coach Dr Klaus Bartonietz and physiotherapist Ishaan Marwaha, is about getting the body right. The actual throwing of the javelin will have to wait.

Here’s a peek into what goes into building up towards events later in the year:

  • The focus currently is mainly on endurance and fitness, which also involves some long-distance running.
  • A little bit of gymnastics, and jumps practice.
  • Medicine balls routine. With both hands, it involves throwing heavier balls (around 8 to 10 kgs) up in the air. That helps in building in shoulder strength for throwing power. There is also javelin-throwing type practice done with balls that are 1 kg or 1.5 or 1.75 or 2... that also improves elbow strength.
  • While all these are indoor practice sessions, the actual throw with javelins will start in better weather. He and his team will be next going to South Africa for a camp.
  • Based on his performances from last year, he’d also be working on improving his blocking leg. But of course, there won’t be any drastic changes in techniques in chasing big throws.
  • A visual idea of all that can be seen here in Rohit Yadav’s training videos, who is also with Neeraj Chopra in Loughborough.

Chopra said he was focussing on his own training and not looking at what his competitors do. He was also asked whether he would be looking to build up his upper body strength.

“I will definitely be working on increasing strength, it is necessary, but I won’t go all out to bulk up,” Chopra explained. “My strength is speed and flexibility. What’s the point of upper-body strength if I cannot run on the track? Every thrower has a different body structure and the aim is to try and keep a balance between all aspects. It is a 800g equipment... someone is speedy, someone is strong, someone is powerful. I will work on my own pattern. Of course, we do come to know who is doing what because everything is on social media now but you cannot try to copy anyone.”

Another aspect that is going to be interesting to follow in 2023 is the competition. In 2022, Chopra’s biggest competition was Anderson Peters, who pipped the Indian to gold medal at the World Championships. In 2023, we could well see the return of Johannes Vetter to high level competition. There are also the other usual suspects in Andreas Hoffman, Arshad Nadeem and Jakub Vadlejch.

“I hope everyone can come with their best fitness, and I will also push myself. It will be great fun, an athlete’s actual strength will be known only when I compete with the best in the world,” Chopra added.

Chopra also made headlines recently when he became the most-written about track and field athlete in 2022. If that was a marker of his growing global stature in athletics, soon after he earned praise for his sprinting technique from an all-time great – Michael Johnson.

“That was just a funny response in the conversation. When such a great athlete says about my sprinting technique... it felt good. We can’t get to their levels. Maybe if I meet him somewhere and am in good shape, I might show him my sprinting skills in person,” he said. “I have to work on my javelin skills much more, that is all my focus is on.”

But it also reminded him of something his late coach Gary Calvert used to say.

“When such a legendary athlete praises you, it gives very good vibes. For my run-up and all, as a javelin thrower I do have to run fast. My former coach Gary Calvert used to say that you are first an athlete and that means, you have to do everything perfectly – jumping, sprinting, lifting.”

So when can we see Neeraj Chopra back in action in 2023?

“The main events this year are of course World Championships and Asian Games,” he said. “There is also the Diamond League final. But when to start, I am yet to decide as that depends on the Asian Games. We will wait and see what the Covid situation is in China. If it happens as per schedule in October, we will start the season a bit late, in May or June. So that we can stretch the season till then. We will also have continental tours and Diamond League games.”

And at the end of nearly 40 minutes of patiently answering questions about his life on and off the training arena, Chopra had a parting message: “I wish everyone gets their wishes fulfilled this year. Aur aasha karta hoon ki iss saal hum yeh 90m waala sawaal khatam kar dein [I wish the question about 90m is over in 2023].”