The first time India’s Neeraj Chopra was participating in the same competition as Germans Johannes Vetter and Thomas Rohler, he had butterflies in his stomach. This was last year during the Paris leg of the Diamond League in July. Javelin thrower Chopra, who was self-schooled in his early years, used to watch videos to pick up the nuances of hurling the 800 gram spear. He has often replayed the video clips of the Germans to try and pick up pointers to what they were doing to consistently cross the 90-metre mark, at times being in awe of their ability.
However, on Friday evening at the Qatar Sports Club stadium in Doha, Chopra felt that he belonged to the elite field he was part of. “Last year when I participated against throwers like Vetter and Rohler and some of the other big names, it felt a bit strange because it was a new experience for me at the senior level. I had watched videos of them to study how I can throw like them and then suddenly I was in the same competition as them. But yesterday it felt normal,” Chopra says a day after he rewrote his own national record with a throw of 87.43 metres.
He finished fourth, his best result till date in a Diamond League event. Less than a month ago at the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast, Chopra had come agonizingly close to breaking the then national mark. He won the gold with a throw of 86.47, just a centimetre short of rewriting the record.
“After the Commonwealth Games, I would say that there were expectations from me. I was also hopeful that after throwing well at the games, I would be able to sustain that kind of form. Yesterday in Doha everything seemed to come together in my second throw with which I broke the national record. My technique was good, I utilized by strength to the maximum, my body felt good. The moment the javelin left my hand I knew it was a big throw,” Chopra says. He fouled in the next three throws because he was overwhelmed by the emotion of setting a new mark.
Since winning gold at the CWG, Chopra has had to attend a series of felicitation functions which disturbed his training schedule. Yet, after a couple of training sessions with his coach Uwe Hohn in the run-up to the Doha meet, Chopra felt he could target his personal best.
The 20-year-old’s next competition will be the Eugene leg of the Diamond League to be held on May 26. The three Germans who finished on the podium in Doha — Rohler, Vetter and Andreas Hofmann — have confirmed their entries for Eugene and so has fifth-place finisher Jakub Vadlejch, the Czech.
Chopra’s focus will be on the Asian Games to be held in Jakarta from August 18 to September 2. But even at the continental championships the competition will be tough with Taipei’s Asian record holder Cheng Chao-tsun who has a personal best of 91.36 metres in the fray.
“The competition will always be tough at the big events and that is where I have to perform. My aim is to touch 90 metres consistently but I will have to work really hard. My technique has to also improve and I need to focus on my body. Not everyone can throw 90 metres because it needs a lot of skill and strength. I am not saying that I will do it right away but I know that I will be able to cross the 90-metre barrier,” Chopra says.
At the end of the competition at the Qatar Sports Club, though Chopra was not on the podium, he had made an impression. In a field of Europeans, being the lone Indian does make him stand out as much as his fast-improving throwing range.
“My competitors, including the Germans came up to me and told me that my throw was really good and that I have a great future. It was nice to see that champion throwers were encouraging me a lot.”
Chopra also gets similar words of encouragement almost every day when he is at the national camp from coach Hohn, the only athlete to cross the 100-metre mark. “When you have a coach like him then you believe that anything is possible. He keeps telling me that I can cross the 90-metre mark and it feels good to hear that. Even I think it is possible.”