Aiming for the stars

Personality

Aiming for the stars
No Indian athlete has created a stir like Neeraj Chopra has  in recent times. The 19-year-old javelin thrower, with a world junior record to his name, is a hearty amalgamation of confidence and maturity as he enters the challenging sphere of the senior circuit.

 The World Championships in London, from August 4 to 13, will be Chopra’s first since his graduation from the junior turf. The tall athlete from Khandra Village in Panipat, Haryana, expresses a quiet resolve to make an impact in the senior ranks. With touching simplicity he talks of reaching the 90-metre mark in the coming years. For now, Chopra, whose personal best came en route to the gold at the 2016 World Junior Championships in Poland with a throw of 86.48 metres, is working towards achieving the distance of 87-88M.

“I am very excited to compete at the World Championships. I believe I can do it at the world level. I touched 86.48 during the junior World Championships. Normally in world level events, 85-86M can be a medal winning performance. I have been throwing regularly between 83-85M now. I can go up to 87-88M in sometime. I also believe I have the potential to touch 90M, but it will take some time. I have to save myself from injuries and add more strength,” Chopra told DH.

Those who know Chopra would vouch that he is a natural. The Australian coach Garry Calvert, who chose to part ways with the Athletics Federation of India after a year’s association, was one among them. It doesn’t take long for one to spot Chopra in action. In the recent Federation Cup at NIS Patiala, he had set a meet record with 85.63 metres. Barring Davinder Singh, who won silver with a throw of 83.82, no one challenged Chopra.

“I feel I am a natural. I have a natural arm speed, which is my plus point. There are times before a competition when I feel my body is not up to it. But when I begin to throw, once the javelin is in my hand, there is a different feeling. It is then I feel that perhaps I have a special talent,” says Chopra.
At NIS Patiala, Chopra is a popular figure. He walks around the campus well aware of his new-found fame. He readily poses for pictures and humbly obliges interviewers. But the moment he spots a bunch of friends, Chopra promptly excuses himself, even if briefly, from the gaze of the world. At 19, he is learning to strike a balance between his past and present. 

Resilient

“I don’t try to show I am a big athlete or someone special. People can be quick to think that Neeraj has become arrogant. I don’t want that to happen. I like to keep it to myself, and my seniors, who have known me from the start, understand me. That’s enough for me. I come from a simple joint family. My father is a farmer, and my mother is a housewife. We think in simple ways,” he said.

What strikes most about Chopra is his inherent resilience. His tryst with javelin took place during his visit to Panipat’s Shivaji stadium. He had gone there for some fitness training but couldn’t take his eyes off the javelin. “I loved the flight of the javelin and the distance it could travel,” he recalled.

One of his uncles encouraged him to take up javelin in 2011. “My uncle was after me to pursue sports. Initially I used to go there out of fear but soon I developed a passion for it. Results started to follow soon,” Chopra said.

“The seniors also encouraged me a lot. But there were very few javelin throwers before me at the stadium other than Rajinder Singh and Anil Kumar Singh. It was difficult to get guidance at the start. My parents also didn’t understand the diet and lifestyle of an athlete. They did their best within the limitations. I left home for Panipat as the stadium was 15-16 km away. I had no vehicle and needed to change a couple of buses. So I started living with my seniors, who helped me in whatever way they could in training.”

During free time, Chopra would watch the videos of javelin legends Jan elezný of Czech Republic and Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway, and copy their technique and action.

“When elezný made his world record throw of 98.48M, he was falling after the throw. And you know when I made the world junior record in Poland, I was also falling a bit after releasing the javelin. People tell me I match his technique in some areas.”

Chopra, who set a national junior record by throwing 68.40 metres in the Nationals at Lucknow in 2012, soon became a force in the age group level and landed at NIS Patiala. “I learnt a lot at NIS Patiala. There were international athletes, and I used to keep watching them and learning the tricks.  They used to motivate me a lot,” he said.

“I also learned a lot from Calvert. He came last year and more than power and technique, he worked on my fitness. I noticed I had consistently improved and not gone down, so I have stepped up accordingly. I always listen to every one and respect everyone. But I do what I feel is right for me and I feel that has helped.”

Chopra, however, regrets missing out an Olympic berth. In fact, his junior world championships record would have earned him a Rio berth but it came just after the qualification deadline had passed. “Honestly, I felt disappointed, but then I consoled myself saying whatever had to happen, happened. I tend to move on but people keep reminding me,” said, Chopra who recently joined the Army as Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO).

“I am really thankful to the Army for giving me the job. The satisfaction is of a different level. Life has indeed changed after my record. I have received a lot of love and respect, the outlook of people too has changed. People come and tell me that I have taken Indian athletics to the world level. It really encourages me to win more medals for the country.”

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