Kishore Kumar Jena is just about catching his breath after a whirlwind few months. At the start of 2023, he was the ninth-best Indian on the World Athletics rankings chart. Today, he stands as the owner of the second-best throw recorded by an Indian and the man who briefly took over the lead from Neeraj Chopra in the men’s javelin event at the 2022 Asian Games.
On 4 October in Hangzhou, Chopra was the headline act. But Jena jumped into lead with an 86.77m throw on his third attempt. The throw also helped him breach the qualifying mark of 85m for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Over the past few years, the Chopra show has been entertaining and uplifting enough on its own. But adding another Indian to the mix, seeing him compete as an equal, was even better. Jena didn’t quite steal the spotlight; but Chopra was happy to share it. Their duel pushed the Olympic champion to a gold-winning 88.88m throw, while Jena finished with a personal-best of 87.54m and a silver medal.
“Mazza aa raha tha (I was enjoying myself)," he tells Lounge, about his Asian Games experience. “Because the competition was between the two of us. There was no pressure on me; I was playing freely. My priority at the time was qualifying for Paris Olympics. We were talking about it the previous night, he said we are going to do well tomorrow, and both of us are going to return with medals. Maine bola pukka bhaisaab, waise hi karenge (I told him that is exactly what we will do)."
A silver on his Asian Games debut helped Jena finish his breakthrough season on a high. If in the first competition of the season, his best throw was 78.93m, his final of the year saw him raise the bar considerably to 87.54m. The Indian Grand Prix, in Thiruvananthapuram in March, was the first time he went past the 80m mark. It was a year when he made his World Championship debut, and finished a respectable fifth on the leaderboard with a throw of 84.77m, which was a personal best at the time.
But only a few months ago, all of that seemed a world away to the 28-year-old.
For Jena, who hails from Kothasahi village near Puri in Odisha, sport had been the means to help his family. His father was a paddy farmer and the sole earner of the family of nine – Jena has six elder sisters. He joined the Odisha sports hostel as a volleyball player. Only in 2015, when he was already 20, did he made the shift to javelin, mainly because at 5’8 he was deemed too short to be a spiker.
He landed a job in Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) in 2018 through the sports quota. That gave him some financial stability, especially since his father had met with an accident earlier that year. In 2021, he earned his first call-up to the national camp. Progress in javelin was steady but not spectacular.
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Things came to a head in July this year, when Jena sat well out of the qualification bracket for the World Championship as well as Asian Games. “It was after the competition in Lebanon that my head started swirling with doubts," says Jena, who won gold at the Lebanon Athletics Championships 2023 on 21 July, despite a best throw of only 78.96m.
“I had missed the World Police Games to compete in this event. I had neither qualified for the World Championships nor the Asian Games. Main poora zero ho gaya tha (I felt like a big zero). I was ranked 41 at the time, and only the top-36 could qualify for the World Championships. I had not gone home for over two years. I couldn’t sleep at all that night. I was thinking I should just leave this all and return home. I felt like I had stagnated. I kept asking myself, ‘what am I doing here?’"
A phone call back home calmed his nerves. His most ardent supporter, his father, told him he could come home if he didn’t do well in the next competition, The Sri Lankan Championships: Jena’s last chance to make a mark.
Though he had never seven crossed the 84m mark in practice before that, Jena came up with a throw of 84.38m at the event. It helped him jump the queue and qualify for the Asian Games as the second-best Indian javelin thrower, and make the cut for the World Championships. Monetary rewards also followed—Jena was awarded a cash prize of ₹1.5 crore after his silver medal at the Asian Games.
“It was the turning point of my life," says Jena. “Somehow it all clicked that day in Sri Lanka." But he believes he had to earn his luck. He toiled in the national camp in Patiala for more than two years, denying himself the luxury of going home. “In training, and after every competition, we assess and tweak and improve," says Jena, who trains under former Asian Athletics Championship medallist Samarjeet Singh Malhi.
“In the last year or so I have made some changes. My run-up used to be shorter. I had worked a lot on the holding technique, and the angle. My angle was very high, the elevation would be almost as high as the throws that carry 90-100m. I have worked a lot on that."
Though Neeraj Chopra is still the leader of the pack, India now has a bunch of promising javelin throwers, including Jena. Three Indians—Chopra, Jena and D.P. Manu—featured in the 2023 World Championships held in Budapest, Hungary. While Chopra took gold, all three finished in the top-6. Currently, there are six Indian javelin throwers who have crossed the 80m-mark.
“We need this kind of competition to push each other," says Jena. “It makes sure we don’t get complacent." With the focus now trained Paris Olympics, it seems unlikely that Jena will let up. He hasn’t come this far just to come this far.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.
- FIRST PUBLISHED25.10.2023 | 07:30 AM IST