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Monday, July 23, 2018

Friends of the Field: Tejaswin Shankar and Neeraj Chopra

High jumper Tejaswin Shankar and javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra talk about their friendship, life, career and interests as they strive to lift their game to the next level.

Written by Andrew Amsan | Updated: March 25, 2018 11:55:43 am
Tejaswin Shankar and Neeraj Chopra Tejaswin Shankar’s two-handed technique has given him the zip in time for the Games; after a lean 2017, Neeraj Chopra has recalibrated himself, as was evidenced in the Federation Cup in Patiala.

A few years ago, two restless teens turned up for a dope test during a junior tournament. Immediately, they struck a conversation. One began, “Hi, I’m a jumper.” Cue the reply, “Hi, I’m a javelin thrower.” Vocation first, name next is perhaps the informal protocol in professional sports.

Over to the name part. The jumper to javelin thrower, “Hi, do you know one Neeraj Chopra?” The bemused acquaintance politely replied, “Of course, I do. I’m Neeraj.” It was the latter’s turn next, “By the way, do you know one guy called Tejaswin Shankar?” The latter, resisting the urge to roll over with laughter, replied, “Yeah, yeah, I’m Tejaswin.” You can imagine the awkwardness of the moment–the brief shock and the ensuing laughter.

As far as introductions go, their first meeting was purely cinematic. Since then, while emerging as the country’s finest exponents in their chosen field, they have met several times; wherever they are, they keep a tab on each other’s performance and exchange tips, from fitness to training, and even seek “brotherly advice”.

“We keep in touch online quite regularly. Once Neeraj came to Delhi for a few days and he wanted to know if there’s any gym he could visit and I referred him to a place. I took him to a mall in South Delhi for a meal ,” Shankar vividly remembers.

The bonding blurs their diverse backgrounds—Shankar is metro-bred and pursues a bachelor’s degree from a university in the US. He’s hooked to Tamil melodies and devotional songs, his pre-event favourite. Neeraj has yet to decide whether to continue his studies after wrapping up school a couple of years ago. Punjabi chartbusters overwhelm his playlist. Shankar, a year younger to Neeraj, addresses the latter “bhai”. Bhai calls Shankar “TJ”.

Neeraj Chopra and Tejaswin Shankar.

They bumped into each other at the Federation Cup at Patiala in March. But Shankar didn’t know that among those who watched him rewrite the national mark was his “bhai”, until he saw a video of his jump recorded by another athlete. Shankar didn’t miss Neeraj’s career second-best effort of 85.94. “We keep motivating each other. I don’t know much about javelin, but because of him I have started following it,” says Shankar. Their friendship is not just bound to the track or field, but permeates into the dining table too. Shankar was a strict vegetarian all his life, but a month ago, he added meat and fish to his diet, inspired, of course, by Neeraj. The irony is that Neeraj too grew up in a family of strict vegetarians.

Initially, though, Shankar was shocked when he saw Neeraj tuck into chicken during their stay at the JSW facilities in Bellary, where they trained together. “I was shocked. I asked him if he knew what he was eating.”

Then Neeraj explained how he found it difficult to get nutritious vegetarian food during his training stints abroad and that he had no option but to turn non-vegetarian. “He said something that changed my view completely. ‘Karam hi dharam hai’. The moment I heard that I knew what I was supposed to do next,” recounts Shankar.

Shankar chose fish for his initiation in a college dorm filled with inquisitive youngsters. “If it helps me, I don’t mind but kya bekaar taste hota hai fish ka,” he says, twitching his brows as if a plate of fish was being served right in front of his eyes.

“He gives nice interviews. I can’t do that,” admits Neeraj, who keeps his answers brief . “Maybe, he studied in a city all along, while I’m from a village,” he reasons, not with a tinge of grouse but with self-depreciation ringing in his chuckle.

Shankar finds Neeraj sometimes amusing. “Woh bohot boring banda hai. I have many interests. I always feel that life is beyond sports. But in Neeraj’s case all he thinks about is javelin. Din raat javelin. Even the game on his phone is javelin. Wahan bhi 89m maar ke khush ho jaata hai,” Shankar puts it plainly.

Chopra does not beg to differ. In his free time he likes to listen to Punjabi music and watch YouTube videos on javelin throw. “Sach bataun toh room mein aise pada rehtha hoon. I really don’t have much happening. I have a few games on my phone that keep me engaged,” he said.

When Shankar took Neeraj out for lunch in a mall, he was surprised to see him turn up in sports gear. “Yahan bhee javelin phekna aya hai kya?” he asked. Neeraj responded with his typical genial smile. He had just signed a coveted Nike deal and can’t be blamed for decking himself in the sporting attire. So why not?

For all their difference in personalities, they are bound by their love and commitment to the chosen streams. Both have come up the hard way. Chopra was left stranded without a coach after Garry Calvert—the Australian under whom he had recorded his junior world record effort 86.48m at the U-20 World Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland—left last summer after a fallout with the Athletics Federation of India.

He had to train all by himself and was left without a coach ahead of his the 2017 World Championships in London in August where he could not reach the finals. The delay forced Neeraj to look out for other avenues and finally decided to train under German coach Werner Daniels before arriving in India in February to work under the new national coach Uwe Hohn, the first and only man to breach the 100-metre barrier.

For Shankar, until joining the Kansas State University last year on a scholarship, his school’s physical trainer Sunil Kumar was his sole guide. Despite the lack of a specialised high jump coach, the lanky youngster broke the senior national record with a jump of 2.26m at the Junior Athletics Championships in 2016 as a 17-year-old.

It’s been just two years and he has rewritten his record with a 2.28m leap at the Federation Cup, putting him tied at the top of this season’s world best outdoor effort with five others. If Shankar repeats his personal best, a medal is all but certain, going by the patterns in the last few Commonwealth Games. Canada’s Derek Drouin took the gold home with a stunning 2.31m jump in Glasgow while the silver went to Cypriot Kyriakos Ioannou at 2.28m.

Although Drouin’s participation is doubtful due to injuries, there are several others Tejaswin has to contend with. Seasoned jumpers Jamal Wilson from the Bahamas and home favourite Brandon Starc, brother of cricketer Mitchell, have also achieved the 2.28m early this season.

Neeraj’s 85.94m throw is the second best of the season, right behind reigning World Champion Johannes Vetter of Germany. Vetter recorded a phenomenal 92.70m– the best throw made in March. Australia’s Hamish Peacock, the Glasgow bronze medallist, has the third best throw of this season. But at the Commonwealth his biggest competitor would be Julius Yego, AKA Mr YouTube from Kenya.

The 2014 Commonwealth champ has had a quiet 2017 and is eager to “start again” at the Gold Coast. The 24-year-old London Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago is another competitor Neeraj needs to be wary of.

“We are going to have some really good throwers there but I am not worried. I know Yego will be there but javelin is an individual sport so you really don’t have to think much about what others are doing. For me the idea is to make my best throw. I am not going to take any pressure even though this competition is really important for me,” Neeraj explains.

If Neeraj does repeat his personal best, we could very well be hearing the national anthem at the javelin medal ceremony. In the previous edition, Yego clinched gold with a 83.87m effort. Neeraj’s best is 86.48m. “After my Federation Cup throw I am feeling a lot more comfortable. I feel like I have got my touch back. The throws are getting better. There is still massive scope for improvement.”

Last year was a bit lukewarm for him. He did take part in various legs of the Diamond League and produced satisfying performances but that one big throw had been eluding him. But working with Werner has helped him correct some major flaws that were hindering the Neeraj from getting optimal results. “Training in Germany has helped me a lot. The coach has worked on my throwing angle and stance. I have this tendency to bend too much before releasing and he suggested a few tweaks,” he explains.

For Shankar, moving to America and training under coach Cliff Rovelto, who guided Erik Kynard to the London Olympics silver has been life-transforming. Just weeks before the Big 12 Indoor meet, where he had jumped 2.28m, the business student made a major technique-tweak. From his single-handed jump he could not generate as much thrust as he had desired. Coach Rovelto’s solution was to adopt a technique where both hands are dropped before take-off. His run up was also extended to increase momentum.

It was risk-fraught, but he didn’t shirk away from the challenge. “I didn’t even know that such a technique existed. It was always going to be a risk but I backed myself. With the double-handed technique the margin for error is minimal. It’s just a matter of inches and your hand may knock down the bar,” he says.

He now wants to keep himself injury-free. “The idea now is to remain injury free at any cost. So I will be training regularly and on the day of the competition I will go all out. You have to save your best for the mega day,” Shankar explains.

When it comes to handing pre-competition nerves, Neeraj seems to be the better of the two. Shankar confides he feels the pressure and tries best to avoid thinking about the competition. He likes to confine himself to his room and watch non-sports related content on the social media. “Before the Federation Cup I could not sleep properly. I have taken part in tougher competitions in America but competing on Indian soil after a break was a huge thing for me. I really did not know how my jumps would go,” Shankar said.

Whenever Shankar is a little worried, he pings Wayne Lombard, the head of scientific research with the women’s hockey team. They met during a training stint in the JSW facilities in Bengaluru a few years back and talk on WhatsApp every second day.

“I am more like a brother to TJ. He calls me whenever he needs any advice be it sports or anything else. I am just there to ensure he’s on the right track. He is one of the more mature sportspersons I have met. He looks 19 but behaves like a 29-year-old,” says Lombard.

For Neeraj, mobile games do the trick. “I don’t want to overthink anything, just do my best,” said Neeraj, who will without a doubt have TJ backing him at the competition venue. “I will definitely go. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see my brother throw at the CWG. Upar se, tickets bhi free hain mere liye”.

The competition

Neeraj Chopra (Javelin)

Julius Yego, the reigning Commonwealth Champion and Rio silver medallist, is undoubtedly the favourite. After struggling with injuries for most of last year, the Kenyan star has regained full fitness.

Keshorn Walcott is a phenom back home in Trinidad and Tobago, and for obvious reasons. The London Games champion and Rio bronze medallist has a personal best of 90.16m.

TEJASWIN SHANKAR (high jump)

Brandon Starc, brother of Australian pacer Mitchell, is among the five athletes to have cleared the season best 2.28m mark. Backed by the local crowd the Youth Olympics silver medallist is a potent threat.

Jamal Wilson, the seasoned Bahamian, will be eager to make amends for a middling World Indoors performance where he finished 9th. The jumper has an outdoor best of 2.30m.

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