As Asian Games and Commonwealth champion Neeraj Chopra made his way to the athletics track at Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex, the 20-year-old Haryana athlete took a bow. Moments later, the javelin thrower was reminded about playing volleyball during his stay at the stadium as a trainee from 2011 to 2015 by athletics coach Naseem Ahmed and Chopra shared a laugh with him.
“I still remember the day in July 2011 when I came here along with my uncles and fellow trainee Jaiveer to give the trials for the sports nursery at the stadium. In Panipat, the Shivaji Stadium had no synthetic track and it was the first time that I trained at such a track. It also meant that I stayed in hostel with fellow athletes and sometimes we would cook our own food. Sometimes, we would miss training but as Naseem Sir would tell us, we would train the next day. During my time here, I made the new junior national record of 68.4 m in Lucknow and new U-18 national record of 76.50 m in Vijayawada in 2014 and competing among athletes, who were passionate about javelin made me achieve my dreams. It is unfortunate that the nursery here has been stopped. I believe such centres should be in every district in the country,” shared Chopra, who won the gold medal in javelin at the Jakarta Asian Games with a new national record of 88.06 m.
Coming from a joint family in Khandra village near Panipat, Chopra initially joined athletics to lose weight in 2010. The next five years would see him achieving the world junior leading mark of 81.04 m at the All India Inter-University meet in Patiala in 2016. The same year saw Chopra winning a historic gold medal for India in the World Junior Athletics Championships in Poland with a throw of 86.48 m.
This year has seen Chopra crossing the 85 m mark seven times which also includes a fourth-place finish at the Diamond League in Doha in April, where he made a throw of 87.43. “I was a bit disappointed when I missed the qualification mark for the Rio Olympics by just .77 cm. But the fact that my throw of 86.48 m would have fetched a bronze medal in Rio motivated me a lot. While throwing, I don’t think about crossing any mark. This year, I have crossed the 85 m mark more than five times but this is part of the process.
Such things help mentally. But to do it again and again requires a lot of training. And that has been my focus since I started the sport,” says Chopra, whose father Satish Kumar is a farmer.
In Doha, where Chopra finished fourth, the top three, Thomas Rohler, Johannes Vetter and Andreas Hofmann of Germany, crossed the 90-m mark and Chopra believes that the presence of a javelin culture in Germany and other European countries helps. Chopra is currently training under national coach Gemany’s Uwe Hohn, the only athlete to cross the 100 m mark with a throw of 104.80 m in Berlin in 1984.
“Last year, I trained in Germany and the fact that the current top three javelin throwers come from Germany speaks about the competition. The kind of infrastructure and specialised training machines for javelin they have in Germany makes an athlete aspire for more such training. Things are also changing in India after my medals. This year, we have seen four Indian throwers crossing the 80 m mark and more such competition augurs well for India. My next target is the Asian and World Championships in Doha in 2019 and training under Uwe Hohn Sir has been one of my dreams,” shares Chopra, a naib subedar0 with the Army.
As the long hair sporting youngster is ready to depart, coach Ahmed is quick to add, “He competed in the World Youth Championships in 2013 with long hair and since then he has sported long hair. We hope they act as a lucky charm for him in the 2020 Olympics.”