Two photographs posted on social media recently summed up the contrasting fortunes of two javelin throwers. One enjoying a breakthrough season and the other convalescing after an operation.
In April, Shivpal Singh stood proudly on the podium holding the Indian flag aloft after winning the silver medal at the Asian Athletics Championships in Doha. Earlier this month, Neeraj Chopra tweeted a photo of him on a hospital bed with his right elbow in a sling. Chopra, 21, underwent arthroscopic surgery on his elbow and will undergo a period of rest and rehabilitation, which could take a few months and puts a question mark over his participation at the World Championships in September-October. Those in the know say Chopra won’t risk a premature return.
Shivpal, 23, knows how frustrating an elbow injury can be. A few months ago, he broke down and was sobbing in his room after he could register a throw of just 74.11 metres at the Asian Games because of shooting pain in his elbow. Shivpal’s was caused by a hairline fracture, Chopra’s because of bone fragments. The elbow, like the shoulder, can make or break a javelin thrower’s career as was evident when Shivpal bounced back from the Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games setback and won a silver in Doha last month.
A fit Shivpal improved his personal best to 86.23 metres at the Asian Championships — up from 82.56 metres — which is the second best by an Indian after Chopra’s 88.06m.
Chopra had pulled out of the continental event because of the impending surgery. In a twist of fate, Shivpal, who like other Indian throwers, have lived in Chopra’s shadow, has now emerged as India’s best bet in the men’s javelin throw. Over the past few months, the two throwers have been in the same predicament, trying to recover from injury. To protect their joint, they also cut down on throwing to a minimum. Both were in Potchefstroom with physios working on strength training under the supervision of coach Uwe Hohn. Like Chopra, Shivpal hardly touched a javelin when at the camp. “During the two months in South Africa, I just had two throwing sessions. When I am fit, I usually do two throwing sessions in a week. During the off season, each session consists of 40 throws and just before competition each session is about 10 to 20 throws,” Shivpal said. “I worked on my power. Earlier I could lift 100 kg in the snatch but now it is 110kg. When it came to clean (and jerk), I improved from 130kg to 140 kg,” Shivpal said.
Because he hardly threw the javelin, Shivpal admits he was a touch nervous at the Federation Cup in March, which was the trial for the Asian Athletics Championships.
“There is always tension when you are injured. But it helps when you get support from physios, doctors and the coach. It also depends on how mentally strong you are. I always believed if I was able to get back to my best after injury, I would be able to win medals at big events,” Shivpal said.
Building shoulder strength helped Shivpal put less stress on his elbow, according to coach Hohn. “He did good training, improved his throwing power. He had some elbow problems on the way but by focusing on strength and flexibility of his shoulder, he put less stress on his elbow during throwing. During the time of building the shoulder, we also reduced throwing quantity and intensity and started throwing only two weeks after the physio gave ‘ok’. He often did only technique sessions where he did not focus on any distance but technique, rhythm and speed,” Hohn said.
Why journey gets tougher for Shivpal
Shivpal Singh, with his throw of 86.23m, is presently ranked No.2 in the world. He happens to be just behind Chinese Taipei's Chao-Tsun Cheng, who got the gold at the Asian Athletics Championships by recording a distance of 86.72 metres. But before the Indian fans get too ahead of themselves, it will be pertinent to mention that the big boys are yet to begin their season. The celebrated German trio - Thomas Rohler (Olympic champion), Johannes Vetter (World champion) and Andres Hofmann – are only warming up for the season. The Asians throwers, on the other hand, have started the outdoor season early. More so this year since the Asian Championship in Doha had been rescheduled from May to April. The rankings are expected to change once the best take field at the Shanghai Diamond League on May 18. The starting list will include the Germans stars. All three have thrown over 90 metres. Czech Republic's Jakub Vadlejch, whose personal best stands at 89.73m, will also be in the fray. Shivpal, who has battled injuries in the past, will have to throw over the 88 metre mark (the national record stands at 88.06m in Neeraj Chopra's name) to have a realistic chance of finishing in the top-6 at the World championships, which means he will have to improve by at least two more meters before the end of September. Chopra has been competing against the Germans for the past couple of years and the closest he got to a medal on the world stage was a fourth place at last August's Diamond League in Zurich. On that occasion, Vetter had pulled out and Chopra (85.73 metres) was in third place till the final round, before a below-par Rohler pipped him to bronze with 85.76 metres. The Zurich meet only proved that to nick a medal against the top Germans, one needs to be at their best and push themselves to the limit at all times. Post the Shanghai Diamond League, a clearer picture will emerge of the true form of the top throwers in the world. For Shivpal, who is likely to be India's best hope at the World Championships in the absence of an injured Chopra, the road is only going to get tougher as the season progresses.
Fortunately for Shivpal, his elbow injury healed, unlike Chopra who had to go under the knife. Coach Hohn believes that Shivpal has the potential to touch the 90-metre mark, a distance that will make him a medal contender at major events.
“He is a different type of javelin thrower and has a fast and active run-up and brings power into the javelin. He needs to improve his coordination and flexibility. If we can improve, with a combination of a better position after the last impulse step, he will be able to throw over 90m! I hope it will happen this year or next but focus will be at the moment to get stability at the level he has now,” Hohn said.
As the World Championships is just over four months away, Hohn does not want Shivpal to lose focus post the silver at the Asian Championships. Shivpal hails from a family of throwers at Hingutar Garh in Varanasi district. His phone has been constantly buzzing these past few weeks with callers asking him to head home where a ‘welcome ceremony’ is being planned.
The sweets, marigold garlands and open-top jeep rides will have to wait though. “The whole village is happy and everyone is waiting for me to return. But coach Hohn has asked me not to go because on May 26, we are going to Germany to compete in a competition where the best throwers in the world will be participating. I have never got so many congratulatory messages on Whatsapp and Facebook,” he says. The thrower does not want to jinx himself by staying away from training. Two years ago, a knee injury saw him being relegated to the sidelines for four months. He left the national camp because the popular opinion among coaches was for him to undergo surgery. But he made a comeback through medication, physiotherapy and rest, and was looking to get his career back on track when his elbow let him down.
Shivpal believes he is ready to step up at the World Championships. “Earlier, people were saying that I throw well only in India and not abroad. This talk started after I did badly at the Asian Games because of the injury. The medal at the Asian Championships has given me self-belief. I am confident of throwing 89m at the World Championships and breaking the national record.”