Yet to turn 20, Chopra was the youngest in the field at the Paris leg of the Diamond League, which included the current Olympic champion and half a dozen other athletes who had far more experience than him when it came to competing at the elite level. The junior World champion and record holder from India was in unknown territory in his first major senior international competition.
Early into the competition at the Stade Charlety, Chopra got an indication of the quality field he was up against. At the end of the first round, in-form German Johannes Vetter had laid down the early marker with 88.74 metres. The Czech Jakub Vadlejch and Olympic Champion Thomas Rohler were snapping at his heels with 88.02 and 87.18 respectively. By the end of the first round, Chopra with 79.54 was fifth.
The top-three had already thrown distances, which were over Chopra’s personal best. Now it was up to Chopra to see how much he could push himself on the big night against some of the very best in the world. By the second round, Chopra had dropped to seventh, but he managed to hold his nerve and produce his best effort, an 84.67, which moved him upto fifth — a position he retained at the end of competition. The four who finished above him are in the top-5 in the world in the latest IAAF rankings.
Chopra’s 86.48 at the World Junior Championships a year ago, remains his personal best, but before using his performance on Saturday night as yardstick to judge his progress, one must remember he is in his rookie year at the senior level and still a teenager. Discus thrower Vikas Gowda was 30 when he won silver in the Doha leg of the Diamond League three years ago.
Gowda added another medal, a bronze at Shanghai a year later. Gowda had the experience of participating in the Olympics, the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships. Chopra will participate in his maiden World Championships next month.
“It was a great experience to compete against the best in the world. This will benefit me in the long run. I would say I did decently well. I have won a World Junior gold but the senior level is a different experience,” Chopra said on Sunday. Finishing fifth in his maiden diamond league will give the youngster a fillip ahead of the Asian Athletics Championships starting later this week in Bhubaneswar.
Chopra will now aim to peak at the World Championships in London. At Paris none of the top throwers crossed the 89-metre mark, but at the Worlds is where the elite will be saving their best for. Chopra has been marked out as special even before he won the World Junior title. His former coach Garry Calvert, the man who coached him on way to the gold in Bydgoszcz, believes that with the right coaching inputs and exposure, Chopra is capable of touching 94 metres.
“Neeraj has already made a successful transition from junior to senior level. But he needs to have a training base in Germany with a ‘clean coach’ so that he can reach his potential,” Calvert says. Over the next year or so, Chopra will have opportunities to compete in the Worlds, the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. Going by his fifth place finish in Paris, he has shown promise of an even brighter future.