Two years ago in April 2018, Neeraj Chopra became the first Indian javelin thrower to win a Commonwealth Games gold. He followed that performance with another yellow metal at the Asian Games in Jakarta and finished fourth in the IAAF Diamond League standings to underline his claim as a possible medal prospect at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Twelve months later, in April 2019, the 22-year-old was struggling to even hold and throw the javelin without pain thanks to an aggravating elbow injury that needed a surgery soon after and a long rehabilitation process that kept him away from competition over six months.

And if Chopra was looking forward to April 2020 to step up his training regime after qualifying for the Tokyo Games in his first competitive outing, he has been confined to the National Institute of Sports hostel thanks to a nationwide lockdown imposed by the central government following the coronavirus pandemic outbreak in the country.

The 22-year-old, who was training in Turkey, and few others javelin throwers training in South Africa were asked to abruptly cut short their training stints abroad to return to India last month. They were then told to stay in self quarantine for two weeks and are now looking to just maintain their fitness with whatever exercise they can do inside the hostel till the Sports Authority of India gives them permission to train outdoors.

“The lockdown has made it difficult for us to train as usual, mostly because we don’t have access to the track since we are in isolation. However, the Sports Authority of India, along with the AFI and the staff at the National Institute of Sport, Patiala have made a lot of arrangements to ensure we can be comfortable. For me, I am focusing on working on my conditioning and fitness to the extent possible using the area in the hostel we are at,” Chopra said in an email interview.

So is he doing any special training while the lockdown is still in effect?

“Nothing special, but I am focusing on my conditioning and fitness. I try to do some shuttle runs in a small area we have, besides that, I’m using the stairs, working on my core stability and we even have a space for a slack line, which is a good javelin-specific exercise we focus on,” he added.

The lockdown has definitely forced all athletes in the world to change their plan as the Olympics have now been pushed back by over a year. And it’s probably too early to talk about how things would be 12 months from now or more precisely when the now postponed Tokyo Games will be held in July-August 2021 and what will be Chopra’s form going into his first quadrennial Games.

But the 22-year-old believes that the postponement has given him an opportunity to work on his technique and build his strength further as all his competitors would also have more time to prepare.

“The past two years have been quite a ride. I did have a very good 2018 season, but missed out on the entire 2019 season because of the surgery I had to undergo on my elbow and the rehabilitation after that.

“Having said that, I had a successful rehabilitation at the Inspire Institute of Sport in Bellary first and then at NIS Patiala, and this helped me get back my strength, and I was able to qualify for the Olympics in my first competition back in South Africa this January.

“So while I was short of some competition experience, I think I would have been ready for the Olympics had they gone on as scheduled. However, with the postponement, I do feel I would be able to get more time to fine-tune some of my technical skills and am looking at it as a positive in terms of my preparations for the Olympics,” said Chopra, who admitted that the rehabilitation period was one of the toughest for him.

The Asian Games gold medallist needed over two months to just start throwing again after the surgery and decided to skip the World Championship in September-October last year and continued his rehab with a clear focus on qualifying for the Olympics.

“My mind was ready to train but my hand was weak and I wasn’t getting the range I was looking for. But as the strength improved slowly, the range started to improve too. I started gaining the confidence in my throws,” he said, adding that he did not have to change his throwing technique due to the injury.

“I did start the throws before the world championship but I wasn’t sure if participating would be the right choice as I was still in the early stages. The throws were good enough but I also had to think about the elbow too. So I consulted with my coach and doctor about it and we took a call to wait until my elbow is completely cured and there is no chance of getting the same injury again,” he added.

In fact, Chopra did not compete in any competition till the end of the year and went straight to South Africa for training-cum-competition and managed to qualify for Tokyo in the very first competitive outing.

Explaining the logic behind choosing South Africa as his base for training and competition, Chopra said, “I trained in South Africa in early 2019, there are a lot of top Javelin throwers who travel to South Africa for training. Everyone there is focused on their training so it helps us understand and work on techniques with fellow athletes. The weather was right for training in South Africa, the training equipment and facilities are very impressive and the diet is looked after well too,” said the 22-year-old, who had missed out on Rio Olympics because he was focused on the World Junior championship during the qualifying period.

However, with the International Olympics Committee making it clear that the quotas already won will stand, Chopra can now focus on making a mark next year.

So does he feel relieved that he managed to seal the qualification berth before the uncertainty began?

“I don’t think of that as such and I don’t think I would have been affected by it in any case. The decision by World Athletics has obviously been taken after considering a range of factors and they are the experts at that.

“I try to keep things as simple as possible: my job as a javelin thrower is to stay in good shape and do my best at each competition. From that perspective, the change in the qualification period doesn’t affect me. Yes, I’m happy that I was able to qualify on my first competition back, but I would have backed myself to cross the 85m mark, as long as I am in good physical shape and form,” he added.

Chopra, however, is aware that he would be carrying the expectations of over a billion Indians at Tokyo despite it being his first Olympics. “It motivates me that people rate me so highly and want me to do well, which is a good feeling. Personally, I don’t think about milestones or medals, but like to take each competition as it comes and focus on doing my best and becoming better with each competition.

“My sport is also such that on any given day, there are so many variables beyond my control, including how my competitors perform. So the best thing I can do is focus on the factors under my control, which is my performance and the way I throw the javelin, so that’s what I focus on.”

Chopra, like all the other top athletes across the globe, is currently focused on maintaining his fitness levels till the pandemic is over so that he can return to the training grounds to start afresh.

“For now, I’m hoping and praying that we can all get through this pandemic safely. But that target is still very much something I think about and the chance to represent India and do well at the Olympics is always in my mind,” he added.