Neeraj Chopra | The hard road to gold

The 23-year-old is the first Indian to win an Olympic gold in athletics

Neeraj Chopra, 12 then, kept pulling or tying up buffalo’s tails, disturbing bee hives and forcing those around to scream. Annoyed, his uncle took him to Panipat’s Shivaji Stadium with a plan to make him take up some sport. “I saw cricket, football, hockey and athletics there. But what I liked most was the group of men training with the javelin. I fell in love with it,” said Chopra, whose father Satish Kumar is a farmer.

The flying spear which appeared to vanish into the sky fascinated him, soon he found he was good at it too. A couple of years later, he won the under-16 Nationals and began to think big.

In June 2016, as he sat in his room at Spala, Poland, Chopra could feel his dream of going to the Rio Olympics slip through his fingers. Early that year, the javelin thrower had thrown a personal best 82.23m for the Guwahati South Asian Games gold and had hoped to make the Olympic qualification standard (83m) comfortably. But as he flew from one country to another, in a desperate bid to achieve qualification before the July 11 deadline, the strain began to show. He could not even come near his personal best.

“I had four competitions in four countries, Germany, Poland, Belgium and Vietnam, in 20 days. My body is very tired,” a desperate Chopra told this writer from Poland one night that June.

He did not make it to Rio but his worst moments taught him some of life’s best lessons. He began to understand his body’s limits, how crucial rest was and how to bounce back from disappointments for there were many painful if-only moments after that.

On July 23, 2016, shortly after the Rio doors had closed, he gave an inkling of what he was capable of by winning the under-20 World Championships gold with a World record, 86.48m, in Poland.

Watching him closely Gary Calvert, who had coached him to the under-20 Worlds title, realised how special Chopra was. In 2017, Calvert had a plan in place to make the youngster among the world’s best with targets of 90m in a year and 92 to 95m in two years.

But Calvert did not last long. When he did not get a long-term contract, in May 2017 he left for China where he died a year later from a heart attack.

In safe hands

Calvert had wanted to leave Chopra in safe hands. And when JSW, which supports the youngster, sought advice, he suggested German Werner Daniels.

In October 2017, after a disappointing London Worlds where he failed to make the final, Asian champion Chopra landed in Offenburg to train under the experienced Daniels.

In April 2018, under Daniels’ guidance, Chopra won the Commonwealth Games gold in Australia — only the fourth Indian to do so after Milkha Singh, Krishna Poonia and Vikas Gowda — but the Athletics Federation of India was against the youngster returning to Germany. It had brought another German, former world record holder Uwe Hohn, as national javelin coach.

Changing his coach for the third time in a year must have been tough but Chopra picked up valuable lessons from each one. He won the 2018 Asian Games gold in Jakarta with a national record (88.06m).

He missed the whole of 2019, including Asians and Worlds, with an elbow injury that required surgery in May 2019 and Dr. Dinshaw Pardiwala removed bone fragments from his elbow joint and set him free.

The postponement of the Olympics by a year proved to be a blessing. As he hit the recovery road, German biomechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz helped him.

“It is fun to have Bartonietz around, his session are lively, he knows how to motivate me,” said the 23-year-old about his new coach. “He told me to enjoy the Olympics, to give my best in the first throw.”

While the favourite Johannes Vetter had competed in 10 meets this season, Chopra did only three — probably with the anxious days before Rio in mind — and looked fresh in Tokyo.

That helped and Chopra made history on August 7 giving India its first-ever athletics gold (with 87.58m) in Olympics in what was probably the country’s greatest triumph ever across sports. And while the Indian was all confidence, Vetter, who had a series of 90-plus throws this season, wilted under pressure worrying whether he had overdone things prior to Tokyo, and finished ninth. Everybody, from the government, SAI and the AFI, had played their part well. The restless little boy, whose eyes light up whenever he sees a Ford Mustang, who loves to go shopping, has brought home a precious piece of gold we all love to hold.

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