Neeraj Chopra: The man, the athlete, the human

Being a role model for a country of a billion has its weight. Neeraj Chopra, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics gold medallist, attributes all that he has achieved to his training group and family

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There's a  lot that television screens do not show you. Behind the dazzling grin and affirmative stance of India’s golden boy, Neeraj Chopra is a personality I was fortunate enough to encounter, in person. As I made my way to meet the first Olympian I have ever interviewed, his charisma shone through the distance, as he stood beside the shiny, new look Lexus ES 300h for THE MAN'S cover shoot. 

Unlike those tanned by prolonged exposure to the shutterbugs, Neeraj was like a child in a park, cooperating with the team and patiently trying out new poses by the car. The ES 300h seemed to have an allure on the young star and as he got into the driver’s seat and checked out the controls, he asked permission to take the car for a spin, his modesty and mannerisms surprising everyone. He came back from the short spin with a beaming grin, reminding me that this gold medallist is just 23 years old.

When it was time to confront him for the interview, I requested Neeraj for a photograph with me. With his endearing charm, he obliged most graciously and even recommended different camera angles with which we could do our own personal "photoshoot". This set a precedence for the giant-hearted, modest giant of a sportsman I would be speaking to. And thus, we began. 

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From beginnings to basics

Neeraj’s sporting appetite was built early when his father enrolled him in a local gym at Madlauda near Panipat in Haryana. He was originally admitted to the institution to battle his problem with being overweight. Neeraj has often said that this was a reason he would get bullied, and his father was determined to make the young lad fitter and more agile. 

From Madlauda, Neeraj went on to seek better training at Panipat, where he was exposed to some javelin throwers in training. Under the watchful eye of Jaiveer Choudhary, also a javelin thrower, the 12-year old Neeraj picked up athletics as his perpetual pursuit and excelled. 

His first international break was at the 2013 World Youth Championships in Ukraine. He went on to win his first medal in Bangkok the following year. 

Not being from a sporting family did place Neeraj in slightly unfamiliar territory in his early days. As a result, he had to self-learn the basics of exercise and other disciplines that would later grant him entry into the echelons of Indian athletics.

Neeraj’s first call to train with the national squad was in 2016, where he leveraged better training facilities, nutrition, and coaching benefits. He went on to win a Gold medal at the 2017 Asian Athletics Championships and never looked back. Even after suffering a major setback in 2019, owing to bone spurs in his right elbow, he returned after a 16-month hiatus to break his own national record with a throw of 88.07m, earning him the rank of third-best, internationally.

On August 7 this year, Neeraj’s throw of 87.58m in his second attempt made him the first Indian Olympian to claim the coveted Gold medal in athletics. Before him, only shooter Abhinav Bindra had won a Gold for India, in any event. His astute determination and the discipline of being a Junior Commissioned Officer in the Indian Army have aided Neeraj in his journey of conquering the highest pedestal in the world of the javelin.

“I am still a work of progress. This is essential in the life of an athlete if they want to improve their performance,” he says.

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Taking the challenges into his stride, he turned these moments into more enjoyable memories. It’s then that he learned about keeping himself calm, especially when injuries struck, and made it necessary to stay off the field. As any sportsperson would testify, this is one of the most debilitating times for a youngster. What kept him going was the ability to train in a way that wouldn’t directly impact the injury, no matter how basic the training would be. Working with his fitness coach, he developed his fitness, strength, and, he admits, that even after 10 years, he is still a work in progress.

“If my training is scheduled for 7 in the morning, I wake up by 6 o’clock, get fresh, and head to the ground. The morning training sessions are lighter than the evening session, which is much harder. For the latter, I need to eat and rest well. During this training, I work on my strength and my jumps. I also use medicine balls, do sprints and throws, which is why it is so important.”

What goes into javelin throwing?

Neeraj has created more conversations around javelin throwing in India with his historic Olympic throw than the nation has ever seen before. This normalisation of a sport that was looked at as a niche can be attributed to Neeraj’s efforts, training, and unforgiving discipline. 

Ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Neeraj had spent an entire month in the Javelin Capital of the World, at Offenberg. Here, he got the opportunity to train with some of the finest athletes in the world, including Johannes Vetter, who he would eventually overcome in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

For an ordinary person, watching the sport from the comforts of their home, javelin throwing may seem like a rather straightforward sport. However, there are complexities and nuances in every aspect, from the run-up to the throw. Neeraj explains, “The techniques involved in javelin throwing include parts of your body. Your ankles, knees, back, glutes, core, shoulder, wrist, and chest all need to be strong. You need to focus on each part. There are various methods that employ speed, strength, and flexibility at varying degrees.” 

He tells me that most throwers focus on strength-building but do not get their techniques right. This includes everything, from the run-up to the throw.

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The 2019 surgery

In 2019, Neeraj had to undergo surgery in Mumbai due to bone spurs and missed out on the World Championships in Doha. He gradually recuperated from his illness with rehabilitative training and meditation at Patiala and the Inspire Institute of Sport at Vijaynagar. This was a difficult period for him as he was out of competitive sports for sixteen months. “I never lost hope during this period. I had made up my mind that I would have to come back in a strong way. It’s difficult during such times because you see everyone else playing and you cannot. I had decided that the first competition I participate in, after recovery, will be special. I will put up a great performance. And that’s just what happened. The first competition I participated in, after recovery, saw me qualify for the Olympics. I was thrilled that I still had the same passion even after the hiatus.”

August 7, 2021

“I trained to play with or without a crowd around me,” says Neeraj. “I know that these are the Olympics and I have to give my best performance. This was the biggest stage I had ever taken in my career and I couldn’t let the missing crowds affect me. When the national anthem plays at the Olympics, people from all over the world stand up in respect. It’s special. Standing on the podium, hearing the national anthem play is the best moment of all. Winning a gold medal and taking the victory lap with the Indian flag is special. This is when a sportsperson feels that all they have strived for has been successful.”

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On being India’s next sporting role model

Speaking about how the condition of sports can be improved to churn out better sportsmen, Neeraj says that every sportsperson should set their personal targets and do all they can to reach them. It is also important to focus on other aspects such as diet and recovery (after exercise or injuries). It’s always better to keep improving your strength and fitness because that is the only way you can achieve even higher targets in the future. “The responsibility for any (famous) athlete is to keep going for better. There’s nothing that can inspire youngsters more than this.”

Being a role model for a country of a billion has its weight. Neeraj tells me how he is shouldering this as he continues to work on his core capabilities. Neeraj’s family questioned javelin throwing as a career option for their son. However, his dedication inspired not only them but also the rest of the village who would see him persevere along the way.

Neeraj, in his simple, matter-of-fact-manner attributes all that he has achieved to his training group and family. 

On gold medal presentation

“When the national anthem plays at the Olympics, people from all over the world stand up in respect. It’s special. Standing on the podium, hearing the national anthem play is the best moment of all. Winning a gold medal and taking the victory lap with the Indian flag is special"

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Mastering the sport

“In a sport like javelin throw, where your technique is critical, make sure that you get the basics right from the beginning. First up, get yourself an experienced coach because simply mimicking a professional athlete and training according to what you have simply seen, may not be helpful. These athletes are where they are because they have put in at least a decade of relentless training. These are practices you can follow much later in your career after you have learned your techniques and know-how to master your body weight.”

The regimen

“You start with exercises like jumps, pull-ups, and push-ups, which involve your free body. You add this strength to the javelin practices later. It’s best to start training at lower levels and then gradually advance what you do. This is important because if you continue focussing on only building strength, you lose your flexibility.”

Responsibilities

“The biggest responsibility for a sportsperson is to not be satisfied with what he has done. Even if it is winning a medal. Youngsters seeing this automatically realise the importance of being committed and focused. Another way I look to help people is in the way of getting started. I can advise them on the right steps to take early on. It’s also the responsibility of families and the government to build a conducive world around aspiring youth.”

What next 

“My next target is next year’s World Championship. Also the Diamond Leagues. Right now, 90 meters is what I am excelling at. I am aiming to give my best at all the competitions I shall be participating in and claim more titles along the way.”

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On his hunger for success

“I am still a work of progress. It is essential in the life of an athlete if they want to improve their performance. It’s always better to keep improving your strength and fitness because that is the only way you can achieve higher targets in the future...”

Swiss love

“I love travelling. I still remember my first flight. My sport has taken me to many places in the world. However, I would love to travel to the villages of Interlaken and Grindelwald in Switzerland. I am sure they are just as beautiful as the pictures tell them to be. I would also love to explore more of London. Hopefully, one day soon.”

Kerala on the list

“Because of my intense training, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit places across India. I did live in several different places, in order to complete my training. I loved the five years I spent at Panchkula. I enjoyed the scenic views of the mountains that are visible from the city. It’s a beautiful sight. I have not been to Kerala yet, but I would love to go there sometime.” 

Foodie

“When it comes to food, I prefer the Indian cuisine among all others. When I am abroad, I notice Indian restaurants at every nook and corner. I recently tried Japanese cuisine too and I loved it very much.”

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Tracking Neeraj Chopra

Gold: Olympics 2020, Tokyo, 87.58m 

Gold: Asian Games 2020, Jakarta, 88.06m

Gold: Commonwealth Games 2018, Gold Coast, 86.47m

Gold: Asian Championship 2017, Bhubaneshwar, 85.23m

Gold: South Asian Games 2016, Guwahati, 82.23m 

World Junior Championship, BydgoszCz 2016, 86.48m

Asian Junior Championship 2016, Ho Chi Minh City, 77.60m

Total: 6 gold, 1 silver

Personal best: 88.07m

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