Neeraj Chopra: The special one

The smooth mechanics of the spear taking off from one's right palm depends more on a strong lower body, enabling a steady run up to generate speed and torque before planting the foot to a standstill for the force to bounce off the legs and into the arms. Like a well-oiled machine, Neeraj has mastered each of these moves to make it look flawless.
Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 14:20 IST

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Spencer Mackay stood at a distance watching his ward hurl javelins at the athletics facility of the North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

It was the first time the athlete was picking up a javelin in 12 weeks during the pre-season months early this year which began with him spending all the time in the gym. The only kind of throws Mackay’s student would do, until then, were with a medicine ball to strengthen the technique or shadow practice (simulating a movement without equipment) to firm up the muscle memory every now and then.

Wearing his spikes in more than three months, the athlete was to throw a series of three sets with four javelins in each.

“He was not throwing his maximum because he was beginning to return to throwing,” began Mackay, the head of strength and conditioning at the Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS) in Ballari.

“On that day, I observed something which I hadn’t before. The 12 throws he made were all stuck to the ground at a 65-70 degree angle in the same area (a few feet front, back, left or right apart) like a cluster between the 65 to 70-meter range right in the middle of the sector. None wayward.

“The pattern made me realise that this man generates consistency even after a long break that may seem irrelevant to most. Other javelin throwers have to start throwing the spear a little bit earlier in the off season because they are still refining such skills. This is why he is cut above the rest,” the trainer from Scotland told DHoS.

The ward, athlete and javelin thrower the Scotsman is referring to is India’s wonder boy and Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra.

The 26-year-old catapulted to fame after capturing gold at his maiden Olympics in Tokyo in 2021. But what’s more fascinating is Neeraj’s consistent medal-winning performances at the World Championships, Diamond Leagues, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and several other competitions since he broke the under-20 world junior record (86.46m) in 2016, that made him a ‘once-in-a-lifetime athlete’. His sheer dominance in a sport very few Indians ever paid attention to makes Neeraj all the more distinct.

“Neeraj has an unnatural series of traits, probably quite innate.. They were in anyway,” continued Mackay.

“His knuckles are quite low on his legs. Meaning, his arm length is remarkably long with a long arm span. And his shoulders, it looks like he has really big traps (trapezius muscles). That’s because the shoulder sits a bit lower which makes his chest look broader than what it actually is. Such traits that aren’t developed because of training make him naturally conducive to throwing.”

The smooth mechanics of the spear taking off from his right palm depends more on a strong lower body, enabling a steady run up to generate speed and torque before planting the foot to a standstill for the force to bounce off the legs and into the arms. Like a well-oiled machine, he has mastered each of these moves to make it look flawless.

If the physiology of ‘Neeraj the athlete’ gives him an added advantage, everyone who has known the world champion vouches that the psyche of ‘Neeraj the person’ is what makes him an outstanding performer.

An unwavering interest in being the student of javelin throw coupled with a deeper understanding of the fact that there are no shorts cuts in sport and truly enjoying the mundanity of being an athlete are the qualities that set Neeraj apart.

“The biggest change I have seen in him over time, is that he has developed this aptitude to be a professional. His diligence with training is clear. It’s not got to do with singing and dancing and ‘shabash’ this or that.. There is no real noise associated,” explained Mackay who has been a part of the Olympian’s journey for many years now.

Rushdee Warley, CEO of IIS, is in awe of Neeraj the person and recalls an incident at their sports facility.

Towards the end of a felicitation ceremony arranged at the IIS to celebrate Neeraj’s Olympic gold, no one could spot him anywhere around them. Neeraj had quietly slipped away from all the hoopla.

“He had run back to the hostel to spend time with all the trainees here. He didn’t have to do that, there was no press around, it wasn’t for publicity,” said Warley.

“He spoke to them and said ‘I have been part of your family and you guys were here when I was going through a really tough time in my career. I wanted to say hello and thank you guys because I didn’t get a chance to do so during the ceremony.’

“Neeraj is down to earth and the gold medal has not affected him as a person. He is always seeking an overall development. For example, every time he meets me he jokes around saying ‘Hey Rushdee, see how good my English is now. Yeah? My English improved huh?’. He is a fantastic human being. And nobody can fake a personality like that,” said the South African.

Again, what makes Neeraj special? It’s quite simple.

Here is an athlete who is so invested in the process of learning and improving in every aspect so much so that the fear of failure is bound to fade away. That leads to confidence, not arrogance, in one’s own abilities despite all the noise surrounding him.

Be it dealing with his fair share of injuries or the constant query of ‘when will he break the 90m-mark?’; be it handling the overnight fame or the sudden swell in his bank account, the boy from Panipat has always kept his feet firmly on the ground, refusing to get distracted with the celebrity status which he understands is an illusion.

The Indian javelin thrower will enter the Stade de France in Paris on August 6, 2024 at 11.50 am (local time) to qualify for the final slated on Aug 8 (8.25 pm) and take another shot at making history.

This time, unlike the last time, there will be greater expectations. Can Neeraj successfully defend his Olympic title? Maybe. Will he stand on the podium in Paris? Most probably. Are there more medals in the future big-ticket events for the world-class athlete? For sure.

But the legacy of Neeraj Chopra will be more about realising an individual’s potential and inspiring an entire generation of athletes.

Published 06 July 2024, 14:20 IST

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