India’s latest athletics sensation Neeraj Chopra is brimming with natural talent

In the eastern end of the country, conditions were far from ideal for Neeraj Chopra, who turned 19 just a couple of months ago

Written by Jonathan Selvaraj | Updated: February 28, 2016 10:50 am
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Having only just arrived at NIS Patiala as India’s javelin coach, Australian Garry Calvert hadn’t travelled to Guwahati for the athletics events of the South Asian Games on February 9. Calvert, however, made sure he caught the javelin throw event on the flickering TV in his hostel room on campus. There was one particular thrower the veteran Australian was particularly interested in seeing.

In the eastern end of the country, conditions were far from ideal for Neeraj Chopra, who turned 19 just a couple of months ago. A cold wind with the potential of blowing his flying spear awry gusted across the Indira Gandhi Stadium. Chopra though seemed unaffected. Unlike some of his competitors, who raised their arms above their heads and clapped in order to get the crowd behind them, the buzz cut Chopra, despite his baby face, was the picture of intensity. His only concession to emotion was to release a growl before tucking the 800gm carbon fiber spear over his right shoulder.

In ten strides the six foot 90 kilogram athlete sprints close to his peak velocity. Still accelerating, his right heel rotates sideways as he cross strides. His upper body then rotates clockwise as approaches the throwing mark, building torque like a wound spring. His javelin bearing arm is slowly extended away from his torso. Coiled and now cocked, his left leg braces hard just ahead of the foul line. His body swings over like a door on its hinge sending the projectile hurtling towards the other end of the stadium away from his scream of exertion. The sharpened tip buries into the turf 82.23m away.

The mark is more than enough to win gold. It also equals the current Indian national record. And while we are only just two months in, Chopra’s effort is the third best of 2016. The throw is 2.36m off the best ever throw by a junior and places him eighth in the list of all-time best by an U-20 athlete. It is also just 77 centimeters short of the qualification standard for the Rio Olympics. Considering his steady progress over the past four years, it is a mark few doubt he will clear soon.

Javelin coach Garry Clavert India’s javelin coach Garry Calvert

Watching in Patiala, Calvert, was excited. Neeraj’s effort wasn’t the best he had seen. Over the course of a four-decade long career, Calvert, rated as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the javelin throw, has coached several high performance athletes most notably Australia’s Jarrod Bannister, who threw 89.02m in 2008. Neeraj’s throw caught his attention not just for the distance thrown, impressive though it was, but rather for an aspect of its mechanics. “The javelin throw is all about getting the longest movement of the throwing arm in the shortest amount of time. Neeraj has an instinctive feel for the long movement,” said the barrel chested 61 –year-old Australian a week ago after one of his first training sessions with the Indian javelin throw national camp.

That appearance of long movement is generated by an elusive aspect Calvert describes as arm delay. “Most throwers in an attempt to throw the javelin as quickly as possible, don’t draw their throwing arm as far as they could. The longer they delay releasing their arm, the more distance they can get,” says Calvert. “Arm delay is something, you keep trying to drill into an athletes head. Today, perhaps just the best five throwers have that quality. (Jarrod) Bannister had it but it took 12 years for him to get to that stage. Neeraj already has that ability,” says Calvert.

Calvert has no doubt Neeraj, someone he says he has been watching for many months before he signed on as a coach with the AFI, is a rare talent. “He is someone you can watch throw all day. You can look at a 1000 javelin throwers and suddenly along comes this boy who understands delay. Even though he is a junior, and sometimes I can’t believe that, Neeraj just stands out amongst his competition,” says Calvert.

Equivalent to Mitchell Johnson

Perhaps, feeling he isn’t putting his point across, Calvert throws in a cricketing reference. “He’s the javelin equivalent to Mitchell Johnson,” he explains. There’s a reason Calvert uses one of the most feared pacers in recent memory to explain his theory. Back in 1997 in Townsville, Calvert coached Johnson when the latter was a 16-year-old schoolboy looking to learn how to throw the javelin. “He was just exciting to watch. He had this smoothness. He was lean and athletic and had an air of confidence that set him apart. I got the same feeling when I met Neeraj,” explains Calvert.

Johnson only trained with Calvert for a short while before settling on a cricketing career. He would soon be pitched by Dennis Lillee as ‘a once in a generation talent’. Calvert believes Neeraj has that potential. “Neeraj is a natural,” he says.

Neeraj made the opposite journey as Johnson. The son of a farmer he grew up in Khandra village of Haryana’s Panipat district which didn’t have a playground and certainly no javelins. “I played cricket like everyone else,” recalls Neeraj. However in what was perhaps a portent, Neeraj was often teased by his playmates. “I could never just turn my arm over and bowl. I was always a bhatta bowler,” says Neeraj.

Indeed for someone now termed a natural, Neeraj had a fortuitous entry to the sport. It was only in 2011 when he was bussed sixteen kilometres away to the SAI, Panipat center by his uncle who felt the then 5’4 thirteen year old was overweight at 77kg. “You know how it is in India. It’s just chance that I became a javelin thrower. If Panipat had runners I would have become a runner,” says Neeraj. And while the Panipat center is mostly used by track athletes, there were four older javelin throwers as well. In a situation he found himself in over much of his career however, there was no specialist javelin coach.

“A couple of other throwers had trained in Jalandhar under a javelin coach. They taught me my basics,” he says. Within a few months, Neeraj had improved enough to win a bronze in the district championships. Now he decided to shift to Panipat. “My parents didn’t want to let me go because I was very young. But I had a desire to learn as much as I could about the javelin,” says Neeraj.

It helped that one of the seniors at the Panipat center – Jaiveer Singh – was known to his uncle which eased the move to a room in the city. Eventually, Neeraj improved enough to feel that he needed better facilities than the ones available in Panipat. At fourteen he decided to get admitted to the SAI sports hostel at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Panchkula, near Chandigarh. “I cant explain why I was so keen. I just knew that I had the ability to be really good at something and wanted to give it my best effort,” says Neeraj.

While Neeraj was motivated, he had not realised that the sports hostel wasn’t taking admissions. And while Naseem Ahmed a coach at the stadium allowed him a place to sleep, he only got formal admission after clearing the entrance standard a few months later.

Following Olympic champion

The dedicated throws range and well equipped gym in Panchkula was a boon but Neeraj still lacked a dedicated trainer — Ahmed was a running coach. Neeraj would thus learn from his seniors, particularly Jaiveer. And because Jaiveer only joined the hostel a few months after Neeraj, the youngster found an alternative. Another compatriot from Panipat – Parminder Singh — downloaded videos of the legendary Jan Zelezny and the two would try to ape the Czech triple Olympic gold medallist’s style.

While the training methodology seems unorthodox, it was undoubtedly effective. Within a year of training at Panchkula, Neeraj had set a a junior national record by throwing 68.4 m in the Junior National Championship at Lucknow in 2012. The next two years saw Chopra making a U-18 national record in Vijaywada with a throw of 76.50 m, apart from winning gold medals in Senior Open Nationals held at Kolkata and the Federation Cup held at Hyderabad in 2014. He would also compete in the 2013 World Youth Championships.

Neeraj finally got a dedicated javelin coach when he was selected for the Patiala national camp after his fourth place finish at the National Games at the start of 2015. But after attempting to train for a short while under 2010 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Kashinath Naik, he decided to train by himself once again. “After a month and a half I decided that I didn’t want to train with Kashi sir. His training method was too hard for me and I wasn’t getting used to it,” he says.

Neeraj isn’t a cloistered athlete. He often asks his compatriots to spot mistakes in his technique. He credits joint national record holder Rajinder Singh with pointing out that his right leg was too wide of his body during his crossover phase – something that caused him to generate less power than he was capable of.

He, however, says he prefers training and learning by himself – obsessively watching slow motion videos of his throwing action on his smartphone. “I have freedom to do as I want. If something is helping me out I will include it in my training. If it doesn’t I stop it quickly as well. When I started training, a senior advised me to do box jumps to build leg strength. But I stopped because I felt that they were hurting my knees. Instead I learned to switch it with the hurdle jumps that worked as well,” he says.

This isn’t to say that there have never been moments of self doubt. “Sometimes you wonder whether if what you are doing is even right. But because I was constantly improving so I felt i was usually doing the right thing,” he says.

While it seems to have worked well, there is a reason why most athletes particularly javelin throwers don’t learn by trial and error. The javelin throw with its combination of horizontal and rotational stresses leaves practitioners injury prone. “There’s no other event where you have to sprint as fast as you can then come to a stop in one step while simultaneously flinging an object. There are just so many ways to hurt yourself,” says Calvert.

Unsurprisingly nearly all of Neeraj’s training partners have suffered some injury. Jaiveer suffered stress damage to his throwing elbow. Back injury sidelined Parminder for a year. Rajinder is currently recuperating from an injury to his blocking left knee.

The only physical pain Neeraj has suffered was at the inter University meet in Patiala in December last year when he competed in two finals with little rest in between. “His body seems designed for the javelin throw,” says Donavan Pillai, biokineticist for the Kwa-Zulu Natal Dolphins Cricket Union who is currently working as a high performance director with JSW Sports which has recently begun sponsoring the athlete.

Still getting used to India’s chaos, Coach Calvert has a more colourful analogy. “It almost seems that he simply walked across the road in India and somehow didn’t get hit by a car. After my first session with the throwers in India, almost everyone was complaining about some ache or pain. Neeraj was good to go. At first I didn’t believe him but he was telling the truth. It’s nothing short of astounding,” he says. Speaking of Neeraj’s experience with box jumps, Calvert says the then 16-year-old shouldn’t have been training in that format to begin with. “Box jumps are only meant to be done by athletes who have already trained for six or more years at that point. It’s almost scary to think what Neeraj seems to have got away with,” he says.

Although he has only been training under the Australian for a week, Neeraj says he is willing to put his personal ideas aside and try Calvert’s regimen. While acknowledging the youngster’s innate talent, the Australian believes there is still some way to go. “Neeraj has some great movements but the bad ones are as bad as they get. He is actively using his right side and he has a nice lean back action but he needs to work his driving leg a lot more,” he says.

The Australian thinks the fact that he hasn’t had a specialist coach until now may be a boon. “If he has never been taught a bad ideas, it’s easy to learn good ones. He is like a dry sponge, eager to learn all he can,” he says. Indeed Calvert is willing to bet big on the youngster who will next compete in the Federation Cup in April and then the World Juniors in July. Indeed allowing himself to dream, Calvert thinks Neeraj could go even higher. “In the last one year, Neeraj has made astronomical improvement. But I don’t think it should stop. The best guys in the youth categories, kept improving. There’s no reason, why he shouldn’t. In a year, with a bit of luck, he could be throwing something special,” he says.