“Olympics ki soch acchi hai, par thoda aaram aaram se chalna chahiye. (It’s good to think of the Olympics, but one should proceed with caution).”
Neeraj Chopra is not thinking about the Olympics right now. The next year, 2019, is going to be all about preparing for the World Championships in Doha. A medal there would also be the next logical step for the 20-year-old javelin thrower.
It is also the site of one of the (few) disappointments in his short career so far. In 2017 in London, coming off the back of a successful Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar, he failed to qualify for the final.
“There should be gradual progression,” is Chopra’s advice for budding athletes. “Athletes should first think of the Nationals, then international meets, then the Asian, Commonwealth Games and after all that, the Olympics. Sometimes, athletes think of the final goal and end up over-training and injuring themselves, or consuming something they shouldn’t have.”
Chopra is a cross between a battle-hardened athlete and a 20-year-old young man still coming to grips with his burgeoning stature. The cameras depict a confident young man throwing the javelin, yet the man from Khandra in Haryana is terrified of the cameras when asked to speak in front of them.
“I miss those days – training without a care in the world,” he said. “Now, I have to think of every single step. Training for the Asian, Commonwealth competitions, or if I have a program that I have to attend, I have to keep track of all those things.”
He added, “It wasn’t like this last year or when I won the World junior Championships. Now, people recognise me after the Asian and the Commonwealth gold medals. I also have had to improve my public-speaking skills with time.”
He is right. Last year, after the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar, Chopra mostly kept to himself or gave one-line answers to the media. He has had to evolve with time and fame.
Does the pressure ever get to him?
“When family, friends tell me I have to come back with a gold, of course there is pressure,” he said. “I try to stay away from social media before a competition. Being selected as the flag bearer for the Asian Games, I didn’t know the significance. Later, I came to know that the flag bearer is someone who is expected to perform well and win a gold.”
But Chopra isn’t immune from the occasional bout of nerves.
The night before the Commonwealth Games final was an especially hellish one. Chopra, in his own words, had set his sights on the competition and had entered finals mode in his own room, sweating buckets even though the air conditioner and the fan were on. “I couldn’t sleep, I had to take a bath, listen to some music to calm down,” he said.
A junior world champion, the pressure of his first major senior international competition got to the Haryana thrower. “I don’t have any pre-competition rituals. I am not very religious, but keep god in my prayers before the competition. Most of the time, it’s me with my headphones providing the calming effect. There isn’t a specific kind of music; it just has to have a good bass, sometimes Haryanvi, sometimes English. Imagine Dragons is something I listen to.”
Chopra did recover to win the Commonwealth gold. The 86.48 metres that he threw to set the national record and win a junior gold was almost matched at Gold Coast, where he was 0.01 metres off that mark.
But for all of his accomplishments, failure to qualify for the Olympics in 2016 and then making the cut at the junior Worlds mere days after the deadline for qualification had ended, rankles. So does missing out on qualification for the final at the Worlds and a missed opportunity for a medal at the Diamond League final and the IAAF Continental Cup. “At Zurich [in the Diamond League finals], I missed it by a whisker (0.03 metres). At the Continental Cup, the rules had changed.”
The record was finally re-written at the Doha Diamond League meet earlier this year, something that Chopra said is not as important to him as throwing closer to his personal best. “I don’t go into a competition thinking of the gold or the record. I want to be close to my current best. I know that if I did that currently, I’d be capable of throwing a 89 or a 91.”
So, is the 90-metre mark a specific target? “Not at all, there’s no pressure to achieve 90. I’m not thinking of it right now. If it arrives, that would be a bonus but it isn’t a necessity,” he said.
Chopra nonetheless has his eyes set on beating those who have managed the magic mark this season and spoke about their technique. “All of those guys – [Johannes] Vetter, [Thomas] Rohler, [Magnus] Kirt, [Jakub] Vadlejch have good technique. In the end, they say whoever throws longest has a good throw. Look at Rohler; they say don’t bend the arm while throwing but he does so.”
Chopra and coach Uwe Hohn will be working on his technique for the next few months at the National Institute of Sport, Patiala.
Apart from the training, the 20-year-old is looking forward to catching up with his group of friends at the NIS, including lifters Deepak Lather and Vikas Thakur.
Among athletes, high jumper Tejaswin Shankar is probably his best friend. “We spend a lot of time together on meets. The time difference doesn’t allow us to interact a lot. But it is rare that an athlete is good at both his sport and studies,” said Chopra appreciatively of the jumper, who won the NCAA Championships.
In his spare time, Chopra likes watching movies and shopping. “Now that Nike sponsors me, it’s not shoes anymore. It’s mostly jeans,” he said, laughing. “But I can’t recall the last time I watched a movie in the theatre. It’s mostly on my phone that I watch them now,” he rued.
While he likes roaming around Patiala which he terms a “nice place”, Chopra’s heart yearns for home and the joint family, which nurtured him. “I am going home for one day, then I have to come back to New Delhi for the [Arjuna] awards function. When I go home, though, it’s not all rest. They make me work,” said Chopra.
And what if he refuses? “Toh phir bolenge ki bhai tu medallist ban gaya hai (Then they will mock me saying I have become a medallist).”
There is a massive reception planned for him back in Khandra where he once accidentally set his house on fire. “It was a mistake. Before I knew it, the fire had spread,” he said.
It was also a period when the villagers and his peers had given him a nickname of ‘Sarpanch’ due to the kurta-pyjama that he wore as an overweight teenager. “Then I started running and losing weight. At that time, I would run a lot of races on the streets. I used to call my friends to do the same and they used to refuse. Now I go back and I get told by my friends that they wish that they had also done the same,” he said.
His long hair has spawned another name now among some – ‘Tiger’. His mother, who calls him ‘Nijju’ may ask him to cut his hair when he goes back home. His grandmother has another demand that Neeraj study further. “I won’t. When I was young, the school was in one direction and the playing field another way. I was the type that would do just enough to study for the exams.”
‘Sarpanch’, however, has been long forgotten and has been replaced by a more prominent name. Having watched videos of champion thrower Jan Zelezny on YouTube, ‘Zelezny’ will be welcomed back with much fanfare.