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Neeraj Chopra's flexibility helped win him the Olympic gold

National athletics coach Radhakrishnan Nair recalls what made a young Neeraj Chopra special

Athlete Neeraj Chopra brings Gold for India in Javeline throw final, at Tokyo Olympics 2020, in Tokyo on Saturday.
Athlete Neeraj Chopra brings Gold for India in Javeline throw final, at Tokyo Olympics 2020, in Tokyo on Saturday. (ANI)

He hadn't quite made the cut but Neeraj Chopra's gymnast-like flexible body and fast hand speed were enough for national athletics coach Radhakrishnan Nair to recommend the then 17-year-old for the national camp where bio-mechanics expert Dr Klaus Bartonietz honed his technique which gave India its maiden Olympics gold medal in athletics.

The 23-year-old Haryana-lad beat a world-class field to notch up India's first gold in 13 years on Saturday night in Tokyo. And Nair recalled the time when he was impressed by Chopra's skills even though the youngster had finished fifth during the 2015 National Games.

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Recommending a fifth-place finisher for the national camp was unusual but Nair, an experienced World Athletics Level-5 coach, did that and it turned out to be a momentous call as Chopra scripted history.

"I saw him during 2015 National Games in Kerala. His muscles were very elastic and he was flexible like a gymnast. He has a very fast hand speed of release (of javelin)," Nair told PTI in an interview.

"His technique was not that good at that time but bio-mechanics expert Dr Klaus (Bartonietz) has made a lot of changes in his technique and Gary Calvert (Chopra's former coach) also has done a lot of work with Chopra," he added.

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This was the time Chopra was training at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium at Panchkula where he shifted from Shivaji Stadium at Panipat in 2012.

Nair then had a word with Athletics Federation of India Planning Commission Chairman Lalit Bhanot and took Chopra to the national camp at NIS Patiala despite the youngster finishing fifth with a throw of 73.45m.

"We used to consider the top three for inclusion in the national camp. Neeraj was fifth in the final but from what I saw, I knew that he will throw beyond 80m in two years. So, I recommended him for the national camp and Chopra joined."

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Nair's prediction came true and at the fag end of that year itself, Chopra breached the 80m mark during Indian University Championships in Patiala with a throw of 81.04m. Once in the national camp, Chopra rose consistently as he won the South Asian Games in Guwahati in February 2016 with a throw of 82.23m.

Then came late Australian Gary Calvert as his coach and within one year of joining the national camp, Chopra created history by winning the junior world championships in July 2016 in Poland with a big throw of 86.48m. Chopra's world junior record still stands.

The 62-year-old Nair also said that the AFI's acceptance of Chopra's request to work with Bartonietz in 2019 was a correct decision and it has done wonders to the youngster's progress as a world beater. "Bio-mechanics is the brain of all throwing events. Athletes may get injured if they train without a bio-mechanics expert. A bio-mechanics expert can find out a wrong technique and can correct it. It was a correct decision and we are seeing it now." The chief coach also said that it was Chopra's choice to part with national javelin coach Uwe Hohn and work with Bartonietz.

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"It was not our choice. Neeraj was not able to adjust with the training methods of Uwe Hohn. After the 2018 Asian Games, Neeraj said he will not be able to train with Hohn. We then requested Dr Klaus to work with him.

"I am not saying Hohn is a bad coach but training is an individual thing. One individual may not able to train under one coach and some other may be able to train under the same coach."

Nair said he was not surprised that gold medal favourite Johannes Vetter struggled in the qualification round as well as the final. He feels that the German would struggle to maintain his peak form for long.

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"No athlete can maintain his peak form for two months. Vetter was trying to throw big for world records and intelligent Neeraj and his coach were preparing for Olympics. Too many competitions is not good. For how many months you will be able to maintain 90m plus?

"Neeraj participated in just three competitions. Moreover, it was training-cum-competition. You don't need too many competitions, it is about when to hit the peak and you have to plan that peak during the Olympics.

"I kind of felt that Vetter may not be in peak form during the Olympics and that happened," said Nair, who plans to take a break for one month to be with his family in Kerala after 20 months of continuous work at NIS Patiala.

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The 28-year-old Vetter participated in around 10 top-class international events and he threw 90m plus on seven occasions between April and June.

Nair disagreed with Vetter's view that Chopra used a new 'blocking' technique during the qualification round and final. He said it was Vetter who was doing it.

"Neeraj did not try out any new technique, he was doing the same as earlier, did not change anything. It's rather Vetter who was trying a new blocking technique but he was not being able to do it properly in the final.

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"He (Vetter) was not being able to block like he used to do. He is a powerful blocker with his left leg, more powerful than Neeraj. He was slipping."

Blocking refers to the point at which the thrower is in his/her delivery stance and the non-throwing side of the body comes to a halt and is locked in place.

This helps the throwing side of the body to accelerate the release of the javelin.

"Neeraj used to throw very fast and normally his blocking is visible for only one-hundreth of a second. In the qualification round, he was taking easy and so blocking was visible."

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