2017 Asian Athletics Championships. India had 29 medals including 10 Gold medals. Kalinga Stadium witnessed a few regulars, a few surprises, but everyone’s eyes were on Neeraj Chopra.
Two things. He threw 84.67m in Paris just a few days before the championships, and most importantly, a year ago, He threw 86.48m, the World Junior record, became the first Indian athlete to win World Championships.
The expectations were sky-high, but Neeraj seemed distracted. He wasn’t at his best. The confused look on the home fans, who are witnessing him live for the first time since his record, added more pressure too.
He stood forth until the third round. It was disappointing. Moments later, before his fourth, nobody knew what went into him. He took a deep breath, turned to the crowd and asked them to cheer. The crowd responded and that was the energy Neeraj needed. 83.06m followed by an 80.99m throw took him to second place.
This time, he didn’t have to look around but the inspiration came flowing. The National Anthem. The Indian relay team’s ceremony for winning the gold. Probably, it came at the right time. The energy took him to the top of the podium with 85.23 m in the final round.
To stand at the top, to hear National Anthem wasn’t just a dream for Neeraj but an obsession. He has been visualizing winning the Olympic Gold for a very long time now. A lot has to do with the fact that he couldn’t qualify for the Rio Olympics 2016. With the 86.48m at the World U-20 Championships, he did hit the Olympics qualification mark, but it came a few days after the qualification cut-off date.
In 2016, he also had to miss a few tournaments because of a back injury. While the injury wasn’t too bad initially, travelling through the bus to his native and also, participating in Indian GP worsened everything, but that throw made him realize that he could win the gold in Tokyo 2020. The process began that day.
Four years later, he did what he had visualized. It did come with bumps and challenges. After a successful 2018, Neeraj didn’t particularly enjoy the following couple of years.
2019 slipped away because of his elbow injury, and the pandemic arrangements ate his 2020 preparations. He didn’t play a tournament for more than a year.
The lack of proper support from the SAI was frustrating too. His coach Uwe Hohn, the only man to throw a javelin 100 metres or more, had to work double hard with Neeraj.
The weather at Patiala was one thing. The poor support from the SAI was another. The players weren’t getting proper supplements, and there were proper communications as well. JSW Sports which sponsors Neeraj had to take care of the travel too.
He played a few tournaments in 2021, and his biggest probably was the Kuortane Games event in Finland in June where he had won bronze.
While he looked good there, Germany’s Johannes Vetter stole the thunder. He had a jaw-dropping 93.59 m throw to win the event. Vetter’s poor outings in Tokyo 2020 was Neeraj’s gain. All he needed was 87.58m to climb the top of the podium.
Who would have thought?
At least not everyone after what Vetter had done earlier this year. Of course, he doesn’t look like a “typical” athlete. With those long hair in earlier days, he had the perfect looks of a rockstar, giving us all the vibes of a lead singer of the boy band. The bandana goes well with it too. He might not be the lead singer but is still a rockstar in a different sport. His game is still art but in a different way.
Of course, he did put a lot of effort to get into this shape. When Neeraj was 11, he was around 80 kilos. The family wanted him to get into shape. He used to travel around 17kms to Panipat Stadium and used to run a few km to shed weight. The kid never enjoyed the training and was always distracted.
He always enjoyed watching his senior Jaiveer’s javelin throw practice. One day, he asked Neeraj to try once and he liked it. Since Jaiveer moved to a different place, Neeraj didn’t practice the game for more than three years. He was 14 when he made a decision to take the sport seriously. However, his village didn’t have facilities. They lacked equipment, and they had only mud tracks. He moved to Panchkula for better training.
Since then, Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex became his second home for more than four years and Kashmiri Lal, the designated cook at the nursery became his go-to person. Lal treated everyone as his family, helped them follow a proper diet and most importantly, he used to make sure that they train properly. Before chicken was added to his meal, Rajma chawal and halwa puri used to be his cheat day favourites.
During his early years at the nursery, he used to play other sport with friends after training. Once while playing basketball with his friends, the ring of the basket broke and he ended up fracturing his wrist, his throw hand.
He went home and had to rest for more than a couple of months. He thought that his career was over and his weight shot up once again. For the next six months, he had to be careful and getting back in shape was his only aim. He trained thrice a day, followed a proper food diet and got back in shape right before the Young Nationals in 2013.
After winning silver in the Youth nationals, he made it to the World Youth championships. A year later, at the Youth Olympics Qualification in Bangkok, he won his first international medal. With an 81.04 m throw in the 2015 All India Inter-University Athletics Meet, he got into the national-level training camp and he had to say goodbye to Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex.
Though he doesn’t train there anymore, he does visit the place whenever he is in his village. Now that the Olympics is over, he will be going back to spend time with his family, his village and of course, his Kashmiri Lal uncle.