This morning when I was asleep, I got a video call from Wayne Lombard, a dear friend and scientific advisor of the Indian women’s hockey team. I picked up Wayne Bhai’s call and saw a smiling Neeraj with a medal around his neck. I was still half-asleep and for a moment thought it was a dream. I quickly went to the bathroom and washed my face and applied some talcum powder. “Bhai tu soh raha tha na?” (You were sleeping?), Neeraj asked me. “Of course, you’ll find most people asleep at six in the morning,” I replied.
But I was touched. I am not an emotional person but had tears in my eyes which I tried best to hide with a little help of the powder. Neeraj took me through his throws. I was only concerned if he was okay because after the fourth throw, he seemed to be in some discomfort. I was relieved when he told me he was fine.
He is very different from us. Imagine he has won India’s first-ever athletics medal but he’s telling me that he’s feeling bad for (Johannes) Vetter. He’s one of those persons who can never say no to you if you’re his friend. I remember him telling me once that a lot of people had borrowed money from him and that he’s not even cared to make a note or a list. I honestly feel he’s too nice for his own good.
The moment Neeraj sealed the gold, I had a rush of adrenaline and, believe it or not, I went down on the floor and did 20 push-ups. I was so pumped up that Paris 2024 was already running in my mind.
In 2016 after his Junior World Championship gold medal, I was taking a walk with Neeraj at the JSW facilities in Bellary. I asked him what he’s done with all the prize money or if he’s secured a government job. He didn’t seem interested in the conversation at all and was extending his arm and doing this weird throw action. I asked him, “What are you doing? Why aren’t you responding?” He replied, “You know, I can easily add another two metres if I get my block (the extension of his left leg at the point of release) right. I realised that day that money and recognition don’t matter to him. He had his eyes set on just improving himself. From that day, he became a person I looked up to.
But I think he owes me something. After his World junior medal, his Instagram got flooded with messages, especially from women. Although he wasn’t interested in any of them, for courtesy’s sake, he asked me to reply to them. He told me what he wanted me to write in Hindi and I would do the rest.
We even shared a room for 15 days in Bangalore. Honestly, he may be an Olympic champion now but I still dread sharing a room with him. He’s a bit disorganised. If you enter his room, you’ll find his clothes drying on the bed or his socks in the middle of the room. I didn’t say anything to him because sharing a room with Neeraj was a huge thing for me. We bonded over fried rice and matka kulfi for the next fortnight. The only boys’ talk we had was about video games. He was crazy about Mini Militia then and now he’s into PubG. I’ll ask him if has a girlfriend when I meet him next time.
We spoke before the qualification round and he told me about how his body was feeling like. I just knew for sure that he would win a medal. After the fourth round, I was on my feet shivering in nervous excitement. I have not seen PT Usha ma’am or (GS) Randhawa sir but I have seen Neeraj and I am blessed to be born in this generation.
I met Neeraj for the first time in a dope-testing room back in 2015 and had no idea who he was. I was like, who is this guy with long hair? We spoke and later exchanged numbers. Our real bonding happened during the 2016 South Asian Games. We both were among the youngest athletes and I was feeling a bit out of place as I didn’t have any friends. I spoke to Neeraj and he told me that I belong here and like other athletes, I too have met the qualification standard to be there.
That’s where our friendship began and it didn’t take long for it to blossom into brotherhood.
(Tejaswin Shankar is the national record holder in men’s high jump. He spoke to Andrew Amsan)
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