“We train in a state of oblivion. We push ourselves, alone in dust and fog. When we win, suddenly there is an outpouring of wishes. Everyone notices the smiles and the medals. And if we lose, we still return to that state of oblivion,” observes Neeraj Chopra, India’s blue-eyed boy in javelin who was the first Indian athlete to set a world record at any level when he won a gold in the IAAF U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
Born in a joint family in Panipat, Haryana, Neeraj had a joyous childhood as he played all kinds of sports growing up. It was all about fun and enjoyment and he had never thought of taking any sport as a profession.
Neeraj recalls that he was not even aware of the sport until one day he turned up at the Shivaji Stadium in Panipat and saw a few seniors trying it out. He went up to them and requested for a trial. “My throw was decent but more importantly, I really enjoyed it. I think that short session sparked something inside and I felt that I belong to this sport. That was the day I got hooked on to javelin and started training with the same set of seniors”
Talent breaks through
Once his family realised that Neeraj was a gifted athlete, they helped him in every possible way they could. But the rarity of the sport didn’t help Neeraj in getting any form of financial support to begin with. “I struggled to get any sort of economic support and stability. My family did try but the amount of resources that were required to train as an athlete, I never had enough of it. When you’re in a joint family, you can't just concentrate everything you’ve got on one member. You must think about the greater good.”
But the natural talent Neeraj was, it was hard to keep him away for long. In 2015, he was picked for the national camp of javelin in Patiala. “Life changed after that. For the first time, I started training like a professional”
'Just another throw' for a record
Neeraj had his eyes set on the 2015 Summer Olympics. “I remember my training was not just for the Summer Olympics. I knew that I was going to participate but the goal was to evolve, get better. I had just come under coach Gary (Calvert). When you have a personal coach, your life as an athlete becomes easier. You just follow his plans. He makes the drills and you just do it.” Neeraj’s coach the legendary Australian Gary Calvert admired his disciple the first time he had seen him throw. “Neeraj is a natural,” he had said.
While preparing for the Summer Olympics, Neeraj realised that in order to make a mark in a world event, he must stand out. “I knew I needed to have exceptional power and strength. I remember times, when my training was ruthless to just maximize my power game. This is the first time in my life I was just training to get better. Not training with a specific goal or number in mind, just training for excellence. The other important aspect, I was working on during this time, was my speed. The aim was to get stronger and eventually increase the speed.”
But Neeraj had missed the cut-off date for qualifying for the Summer Olympics leaving him disappointed. But he continued with his training programme.
Just a week after missing the cut off for the Summer Olympics Neeraj was in Bydgoszcz in Poland for the U20 World Championships. “The attempt that broke the world record was just another throw. I never threw it thinking that it would go over 86 meters but as it left, I sensed that it is a special throw. All I can say is I feel I was in my zone where every single moment seemed to be falling in place.”
Hard work and self-belief
“My next target is the Commonwealth Games. But I am more focused at improving my personal best. Only then will I be able to get a medal for India,” said Neeraj.
His mantra is simple. Neeraj wants young athletes to believe in their abilities and not worry too much about technical glitches. He feels, with time, they will learn how to address them. “I want upcoming athletes to work hard because “akele talent se aap kuch nahin kar sakte, mehnat to bahut karni padti hai” (Talent won’t take you anywhere without hard work)
Neeraj Chopra’s short but illustrious career so far makes him India’s main man in javelin in years to come. His method of chasing excellence while continuing to remain a humble boy from Panipat has already put him in a class of India’s finest icons. The ones who inspire greatness.