Commonwealth Games 2018: Pushing aside the World Championships setback, Neeraj Chopra ready to fly high

16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 - Day Seven
Neeraj Chopra

“My biggest goal is to put India on the javelin throw map. I hope I can give all my efforts to make it possible, so that everyone gets to know even India is a power when it comes to javelin throw.

“That is what drives me and I am ready to do everything for it.”

The words came distinct and clear from Neeraj Chopra when Sportskeeda caught up with the star javelin thrower recently.

It is hard to imagine that Neeraj is all of 20. Such mature and wise words absolutely belie his age.

With no history in javelin throw, putting India on the world map is a herculean task. But that doesn’t deter him. He tells those words with so much earnestness that you are bound to believe him.

Every third sentence of a conversation with him has the word, mehnat, indicating that Chopra is absolutely married to his sport and fully recognizes the amount of perseverance that goes into producing champions.

He literally eats, drinks and sleeps javelin throw. Away from the field, he even devotes his spare time to watching videos and playing games on javelin.

If India is dreaming today about a Commonwealth Games gold medal in javelin throw, which had seemed impossible even a couple of years ago, it is because the country has the able shoulders of this boy, hailing from Khandra village in Panipat, Haryana.

Back in 2016, Chopra had first laid the foundation to those hopes when he etched his name in the record books on a July evening at Bydgoszcz, Poland. The record 86.48m throw made him the world u-20 champion and the first Indian to win any world championships in athletics.

Since then, he has been crowned the champion of Asia and he also has a South Asian Games gold medal to his credit. Qualification for the World Championships and the Diamond League followed as well, making India sit up and take notice of this uber talented kid.

It has been one bravura performance after another from someone, who is not daunted by the prospect of facing the world’s best.

It is thus not foolish to expect this wunderkind to bring home laurels from every competition that he participates in. India has never had anything other than a solitary bronze in men’s javelin at the Commonwealth Games, but Chopra very much has the knack and a burning desire to change things.

And he also got a huge boost ahead of the Games as if he needed one!

He hurled the spear to a distance of 85.94m at the Federation Cup that rewrote the meet record. It has also put him right behind the world champion Johannes Vetter in the 2018 season leaders.

Suffice to say, it has put him in the right frame of mind as he embarks on a medal hunt in Gold Coast.

“It felt very good throwing 85.94m at the Federation Cup,” says Chopra from Australia.

“It is the second best throw of my career after the 86.48m throw that I achieved in 2016. From my side, I’ll leave no stone unturned in producing my very best effort at the CWG. The field also includes world champions and Olympic medallists.

“I’ll surely strive to get the gold. Time will tell the rest.”

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) sent the 12-member contingent early to get acclimatized to the conditions Down Under before they moved to the Games village last Sunday. The 10-day training session at the Sports Super Centre, under the watchful eyes of world record holder Uwe Hohn, has been highly beneficial for Chopra, as he admits.

“The training has gone well so far here in Australia. This early start was important to get used to the weather conditions and the diet.”

Learning lessons from 2017

As much as it has given him the confidence that he needed, he knows he cannot be over enthusiastic for the path to success is very, very slippery. Taking it slow is the way to go so that he can peak at the desired event.

With the likes of former world champion and Rio Olympic silver medallist, Julius Yego in the field -- who is also the defending Commonwealth champion -- Chopra has to remain calm and steady and absolutely cannot afford to make even a tiny mistake.

He learned his lessons the hard way last year. He overburdened himself for the sake of exposure, taking part in 10 events and that, in turn, affected his throw at the London World Championships. Too much travelling robbed him the chance to have a relaxed body and mind at the blue riband event. Garry Calvert, who had guided him to World U-20 Championships glory, too had severed ties with the AFI, leaving the teen in a lurch.

The youngster was on his own and desperately needed guidance. His best throw of 82.26m was just a shade below the qualifying criterion of 83m. Not that his throw was disastrous, but it surely wasn’t good enough to fetch him a place in the final in such a high-profile event.

“I participated in so many competitions in 2017 for the first time in my career,” Chopra recounts.

“I lacked in the arm strength during the World Championships. I was also a bit exhausted from the constant travelling and participating in lots of other tournaments before that. The throw wasn’t that bad -- 82.26m. But competition was of very high level there.

“Besides, I did not have a lot of experience then. All in all, I could not maintain my rhythm the way I should have done it. This time I am going all out to maintain my rhythm.”

The groin injury that he suffered in the middle of the Zurich Diamond League was the last straw. It made him realize that resting and ironing out his technical flaws was of utmost importance and he turned to German coach Werner Daniels, with whom he had a short stint before.

Tweaking release in Offenburg

A three-month training session ensued along the banks of the Rhine in Offenburg. He dived headlong into improving his core strength and rectifying the technical mistakes that had held him back earlier. Chopra came back to India refreshed, charged up, with his eyes on the big prize at the Commonwealth Games.

“I had a good training in Offenburg for three months. I have improved my core strength and have also rectified the technical fault that I had earlier in the run-up. The tweaked action during the release has reduced pressure on my elbow and I am very much feeling the positive effects of my stint there.”

Chopra hails from a family of farmers and from a village, where kabaddi and wrestling take the centrestage when it comes to sports, as is the norm in Haryana. Despite his vocation being pretty alien to his family, they lent their support to him in every way possible.

“I started exercising to gain fitness. There is a ground called Shivaji Stadium in Panipat where I would travel to from my village for that. It was there that I was introduced to javelin throw by my senior, Jaivir. Practising with him made me better at the sport.

“In my village in Haryana, everyone plays kabaddi, wrestling, volleyball etc. I too was no exception. But I chose javelin throw professionally after I started having good results.

“I come from a family of farmers. Despite that, they have supported me to the best of their abilities.”

Perhaps they had seen the stubborn determination in their boy, that would mould him into one of the very best in his field. It is that sterling quality of his that has brought him this far and it is what will push him to even loftier heights in the future.

Chopra has given hopes to an entire nation and he is ready to justify the immense faith that his countrymen have in him.

“Yes, I understand people expect from me a lot. I will put every ounce of my strength to justify the faith in me. I am trying my very best for that.

“I will give my 100% from my side. The rest will depend on what happens on the day of the competition. How my body language is on that day and how much eager and ready I am, will make a lot of difference.”

There cannot be a better teacher than failure. His World Championships setback has taught him how many factors contribute to pushing one to the top podium on the day of the competition.

This time he is keen to tick all the right boxes and make it a historic day for India, and, like he said, take another very important step towards making the country a world power in javelin throw.

Edited by Sudeshna Banerjee

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