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Sunday Special » People

Posted at: Jul 16, 2017, 12:14 AM; last updated: Jul 16, 2017, 12:14 AM (IST)

Focused as arrow

Gaurav Kanthwal in Chandigarh
The teenager from a Panipat village excels in javelin throw, and is determined to get us more medals

The balancing act

  • Javelin throw requires an athlete to run at full tilt and then come to a sudden halt. The objective is transfer the force from hip to shoulder and then to the throwing arm.
  • All this while, the body curls up in one direction. The key is in harnessing the maximum long movement of the arm by delaying the release and getting the releaseangle right.
  • Javelin specifications: 8ft 6inch-10 inch in length; 800gm weight; runway length 30m; breadth 4m
This is a story of how athletes are made in India and how a precociously talented village teen slaloms past obstacles to become a junior world champion, all in less than six years. He never bothered about his humble beginning at Khandra village in Panipat. What he did worry about was the lack of facilities in the city for a sport he chose: javelin throw. 

He was first crowned the junior world champion and then national champion, and very recently, the Asian champion. All through, he has not had a full-time coach. Yet Neeraj Chopra has abundance of self-belief. 

Take a look at how he began as a 13-year-old overweight village lad. First he was packed off to a nearby sports centre to shed some weight and see if he could pick up a sport. In three months, the boy turns out to be a medallist in an inter-district competition. By the end of the year, he’s become the junior national champion. Two more years of hard work, and he has smashed the U-18 national record. He next takes on the big boys and wins gold twice at the Nationals. In between, he has shown up at the World Youth Championships, too.

Next year, the year of National Games, the 17-year-old, with moustaches just about beginning to show on his face, finishes fifth and is fast-tracked to the national camp in Patiala. In his first international competition in the senior category, Chopra, 18, not just returns with the gold medal, but has a new national record to boast of.

In these whirlwind years beginning 2011, Chopra has justified himself as an exceptional talent. The most amazing part has been his growing mastery over a sport that remains contorted in Indian athlete’s mind due to its complexity and lack of expertise. A 15-month stint with Australian Gary Calvert, former India coach, was enough for the Haryana lad to give a record-breaking performance (86.48m) at the U-20 World Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in July 24, 2016. 

“It was a perfect throw, the moment javelin left my hand, I knew it was special. Everything related to it is etched in my mind like it happened yesterday. I often visualise it during competitions,” says Chopra, a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) in the Indian Army. 

No Indian, junior or senior, in any national or international competition had come anywhere near this mark. For javelin throw in India, this was a red-letter day. 

Chopra is being reckoned as India’s medal hope for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. He still has to pass a litmus test, the IAAF World Championships in London (August 4-13) where he will be calibrated against the best in the business.

“I am raring to go. My whole energy and mind is focussed on World Championships. I want to be at my peak, I want to be mentally and physically fresh. The results will show where I stand two years before the Olympics,” says Chopra.

This month only he finished a creditable fifth (84.67) in Diamond League in Paris where top-10 athletes were in the fray. Back home, Chopra touched the 85.23m mark, Asian Championships meet record, to be crowned the Asian champion in Bhubaneswar.  Chopra’s throws may not be exceptional by world standards, but Indian athletics fans’ excitement brims from the knowledge that it is a first for an Indian. And the guy is just 20. 

 “He is a rare talent. Someone you can watch throw the javelin all day… With good training he can touch the 90-m mark,” Calvert had justified the excitement. 

Chopra’s methodology is simple: Watch YouTube videos, stick to the basics, and if something is not falling in place, try the next thing. “He has problem areas, like his driving foot, but he overshadows his weaknesses with his strengths,” says Jaiveer Singh, once his senior training partner and now a mentor.

Singh was the one who initiated Chopra to javelin throw after the 13-year-old’s uncle brought him from his Khandra village to Shivaji Stadium in Panipat to burn some baby fat. The talented teenager learnt the ropes fast, and following a natural progression, he along with five others shifted to Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Panchkula where facilities are good. 

New to the city and nowhere to go, it was tough for Chopra to find accommodation with limited financial resources. It is here the stadium in-charge, Naseem Ahmed, an athletics coach played the good samaritan . “When these four-five guys came from Panipat especially to train here, they had no place to stay. They were good and sincere, so I made an arrangement for their stay,” says Ahmed, who has been excitedly following Chopra’s World Championships campaign. 

The coming month will give a fair idea where this youngster is headed to.

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