India was supposed to start its four-month countdown to the Olympics this moment. But forced into an unprecedented, grim lockdown as the world battles the Covid-19 outbreak, sport is staring at unfathomable despair. Indian athletes though have given the country reasons to rejoice in the past. The Indian Express looks back at a bunch of these memories in ‘Those Months, Those Minutes’.
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Neeraj Chopra, India’s finest javelin thrower, is living a dream he never dreamt. The reigning Asian and Commonwealth Games champion grew up in Khandra village in Haryana’s Panipat district, and hadn’t even seen a javelin as a kid let alone harbour any ambitions of one day becoming a world champion in the discipline.
But at the 2016 IAAF World U20 Championships in Poland, an 18-year-old Neeraj changed the course of his life while inspiring scores of youngsters in India to pick up the 800-gram spear. The 86.48m throw, in his second attempt, bagged India’s first-ever gold at a world-level competition and also rewrote the U20 world record.
That an achievement of this magnitude would have required years of dedication, hard work and sacrifice is a given. But whenever Neeraj narrates his journey to the podium, he prefers to edit out the emotional bits. The focus, according to him, should be on the positives and it comes as no surprise that his version of the story is liberally peppered with “bahut badiya tha” (It was great).
So how did things shape up in the run-up to the championships? There had to be an injury, a visa delay, a last-minute hiccup or some such problem that made things difficult, no? “Nahi ji, sab badiya tha.”
“We were training in Spala (in Poland) so we just drove down to Bydgoszcz (no visa problems). I took part in an event a few days before the competition and managed to hit 79m. I was carrying good momentum and a lot of positive energy. I was injury-free. My junior world ranking was no. 1, and all these things matter. During my final training sessions, I could feel that my body was in top shape and a big throw was on its way,” Neeraj tells The Indian Express.
Back then, he was training under Australian coach Gary Calvert, who passed away in 2018 due to a heart attack. Calvert, known for his amenable nature, streamlined everything for his young charge. He understood Neeraj’s style, a lot different from the big throwers from Germany, and harnessed it.
Just another day
Even on the day of the event, Neeraj went about it like it was any other competition. Adequate sleep, meals on time and the standard warm-up procedure. Nothing special, until then.
“You have to take a lot of care of yourself in the run-up to a big event. And on the day of the event, you have to plan your meal timings. Everything is chalked out: the duration you have to sleep, you’re not allowed to oversleep too. My mind automatically gets into the zone ahead of a competition,” he explains.
July 23, 2016 – Javelin throw final
On the qualifying day, Neeraj managed 78.20m in his first attempt to make the cut for the finals. But the usually calm Neeraj did feel a surge of adrenalin in his body like never before as we walked into the Zdzisław Krzyszkowiak Stadium for the finals.
“I was feeling good even during my warm-up. In the first attempt, I gave it everything but the result wasn’t up to the mark as I managed 79m. Then in the second throw, the moment the javelin left my arm, I knew this throw was different. I could hear the crowd go “wooh” as my spear went flying through the air and the moment it landed, the noise was something different. I could feel the force that went into the throw inside of me. I knew it was the best throw I have made in my life,” Neeraj remembers.
It’s like a seasoned batsman knowing where the ball is heading the moment it touches the bat. If Neeraj was a batsman, his second attempt hit the sweetest part of the willow with perfect timing. Apart from the medals and laurels that one throw earned him, it made Neeraj finally dream big.
World U20 record!
Watch the 86.48 throw of Neeraj Chopra pic.twitter.com/BXtCKxR0rT
— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) July 24, 2016
“I waited anxiously for the distance to pop up on the big screen. There it was, 86.48m. I couldn’t believe it for a while. I saw the fruits of years of training and sacrifice in front of me. That moment I realised I was meant for greater things and that one day I knew I could win a medal at the greatest sporting event, the Olympics,” he says.
Neeraj’s target-setting approach seems very practical considering the fact he took up sports in the first place to lose weight. As a kid, he was grossly overweight, weighing 90 kg at the age of 12. Those days are long behind the 22-year-old, a true Olympic medal prospect, who has set his eyes on the elusive 90m mark.
The moment the word of Neeraj’s medal in Poland reached India, his phone didn’t stop buzzing. How to deal with overnight popularity wasn’t part of Calvert’s coaching manual.
“At that time, I didn’t even have an Instagram or Twitter account. I was only on Facebook and my friends were sending me screenshots of famous people congratulating me on social media. It felt really good to receive such accolades but I was honestly not prepared for it at all. This sudden attention I was getting made me a little uncomfortable. I didn’t even know how to respond to the countless messages on my phone so I thought it would be best to just switch it off completely. (laughs),” he says.
Neeraj Chopra best U20 in world & history with #WU20Bydgoszcz2016 javelin win
— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) July 24, 2016
Future even brighter
Neeraj is a pioneer in Indian athletics. He proved he is a rare gem by consistently performing well on the circuit and by adding more distance to his national mark. His CWG medal in 2018 was the first gold for an Indian in the javelin event in the history of the competition. Indians have been long content celebrating ‘near misses’ in track and field but Neeraj has given them reason to dream bigger.
But as usual, Neeraj’s approach is a little different.
“Everyone thinks about winning a medal all the time. But when I am competing, I aim to nail a near-perfect throw. Once I complete that, I take everything, even medals, as a bonus.”