A few years ago, Neeraj Chopra was shuttling between training grounds at Panipat and Panchkula. An uncle of his decided that his nephew was overweight and asked him to try his hand at track and field. In the course of making a lifestyle change, Chopra gravitated towards hurling the javelin. Over the past 18 months, Chopra, the son of a farmer, has transformed from a little-known junior to a World Under-20 champion with an even brighter future. On Saturday, he will compete at the prestigious Diamond League in Paris, his first major senior competition since his stupendous throw of 86.48 metres at world junior championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, a year ago.
The elite 10-man field includes the current Olympic champion Thomas Rohler. Invitation to participate in the Diamond League is reserved only for the best in the world. Chopra’s name in the start list gives Indians a reason to be excited about a track-and-field athlete again.
Chopra is currently ranked No.12 in the senior list and how he progresses from here on will be watched with great interest. Only a handful of Indian athletes have made a successful transition from the junior to the senior level, but sagely voices call him a once-in-a- generation talent capable of throwing the javelin upwards of 90 metres.
Garry Calvert, the Australian coach who trained Chopra when he broke the junior world record last June, does not rule out 94 metres by the time the next Olympics are held in Tokyo in three years’ time.
In Paris, he will be rubbing shoulders with Rohler. The German’s best effort this year, also his personal best, stands at 93.90 metres. The field also includes in-form Johannes Vetter and Czech thrower Jakub Vadlejch – both having registered season bests of over 87 metres.
Chopra will increasingly face throwers with pedigree as he steps into the big league. If he is not making any tall promises, it is only understandable.
“This is my first Diamond League and I am hoping to gain experience from competing against the best athletes in the world. I don’t have a set target when it comes to distance because I don’t want to rush into things. I want to gauge what I need to work on and a competition like the Diamond League will definitely help,” Chopra said.
Over the course of the next year, Chopra will have further opportunities to compete against elite athletes. The World Championships, an event for which he has already qualified, is in August. “This is a big year for me because the World Championships is coming up in August and before that, we have the Asian Athletics Championships at home (Bhubaneshwar). So I am aware that I have to be consistent. The next year is also important as the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games will be held,” Chopra said.
Calvert moved to China a couple of months ago, but he will be closely following the javelin throw competition at the Stade Charléty in Paris. According to Calvert, Chopra belongs to a limited pool of throwers who use the rotational technique, one in which the hip, chest and shoulder all come into play to generate force — a factor which is restricted in the linear technique.
Calvert believes advancements in the linear technique have stagnated. Chopra, by adopting the rotational technique, is at an advantage. Yet the challenge lies in trying to maintain the alignment and angle of the 800 gram sphere, which is easier in the linear technique. Chopra’s gold-medal winning throw at the World Under-20 championships was an example of him making the most of the more modern of the two techniques.
“His style of throwing and the technique is rotational and not many throwers in the world execute this idea well. Neeraj has managed to do it a few times and, in particular, at the right time. His winning throw at the World Juniors was one of those times. Neeraj uses what is called rotational throwing where his upper body is twisted more than normal and he drives forward into a strong and superior throwing position. Attempting this at full speed is challenging. This allows him to delay his body and arm strike compared to other throwers and especially Indian throwers,” Calvert told The Indian Express on Friday.
The ‘delay’ is crucial here as a longer ‘delay’ in releasing the arm results in greater distance. While Chopra will have to learn to account for his off-days with regard to his technique, Calvert says his mental conditioning and ability to quickly grasp inputs from a coach will hold him in good stead.
“Neeraj is a special talent in relation to most juniors in most events. His difference is mostly in his demeanour. Neeraj thinks clearly, calmly and sensibly. He is very mature for his age. What stands out in Neeraj is his ability to absorb information and and then enact it into his physical movements. At times, its instantaneous. So his body awareness and motor learning is very high. But the critical thing is that he must trust the information being given to him. If not, he switches off. I have found his learning ability at a very high level,” the Australia-born coach said.
But Calvert has a word of caution for those who have started taking Chopra’s progress for granted. “It is a big mistake to believe that Neeraj will just naturally make this (technique, strength, and overall athleticism) happen as he is gifted. It is a question of balancing hard work with correct knowledge and training. Neeraj needs the right coach.”
Calvert said that according to his development plan, Chopra was to progress from 86.48m in 2016 to 88-90m this year by the time of the World Championships. Tweaking his throwing technique was expected to allow Chopra to consistently touch 88 metres and peak at 90-92 by the end of 2019.
“By 2020, he was to be throwing 90-94m and challenging for a podium finish at the Tokyo Olympics. So I think Neeraj, if he remains healthy, has the ability to throw 94-metre plus if he has no interference and the right coaching,” Calvert feels.
In the current scenario, it is creditable that Chopra managed an 85m-plus throw at the Federation Cup even as his training schedule was disrupted when Calvert left a couple of months earlier. On Saturday evening, up against the best in the world at the Stade Charléty in Paris, Chopra will hope he can execute the first part of his former coach’s ‘development plan’.