Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra turned 24 on 24 December. When asked how he celebrated his big day, his answer isn’t surprising at all. “I practiced and had fun there,” says Chopra, who is currently training at a state-of-the-art athletics centre in Chula Vista, San Diego in the US.
Chopra explains that he is completely focussed on regaining his fitness levels with his team and coach Klaus Bartoneitz. As the high of his historic gold-medal winning throw at the Tokyo Olympics last August slowly fades, Chopra is leaving no room for error as he approaches some key competitions in 2022, including the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the Asian Games in Hangzhou. His typical training day starts with breakfast at around 7 or 7:30am. “Around 9:30-10am, we start training, which goes on for 2-2.5 hours and is then followed by lunch. I try to get some rest before the evening training, which begins from 4:30-5pm and can last anywhere between 2-3 hrs,” Chopra says during a video interview.
His first test this year will be at the Diamond League meets, which begin in May in Doha, Qatar. But it is the World Championships in Oregon—slated to begin in July—that are firmly in his sights for 2022. “This tournament comes before every other competition for me,” he adds.
In an exclusive interview with Mint, Chopra talks about the importance of technique in javelin, maintaining a balance between training and his personal life, and how he handled the attention and pressure that came with his Olympic win. Edited excerpts:
The year 2022 is going to be a busy calendar for you. How key are the World Championships this time?
The World Championships are very important for me. If the Olympics were my main focus in 2021, then I’d say the World Championships are my focus for this year. For now, I am getting back to my normal fitness levels. Then, my coach and physio have a complete plan ready on how we’ll train going forward and what are the areas that I need to work on. Once I am back to my usual fitness levels, I’ll be back into javelin training.
Could you tell us more about your training? Are there any areas you are trying to improve?
Right now, I am trying to lose some weight. For that, I do a lot of running and sprints, APC exercise, and hurdle jumping. I also do a lot of core exercises. There’s also a bit of circuit training involved. One day is focused on the upper body, then I shift to lower body exercises. I am essentially training every part of my body to be fit again—be it my shoulder or elbow movements, legs and the knees. Once that is done, I’ll move to strength training and working with the medicine ball (for ball throws).
Can you tell us more about the technicalities of your sport, and the areas of your technique that you focus on?
Javelin throw is all about technique. It might seem like that all you have to do is run and throw the javelin. But we need a lot of flexibility, speed and strength. More important is how to control all these three things. For that, we do explosive strength training, which is specific to javelin.
If I speak about the technique, everything from my ankle to my wrist is involved. There’s the run-up first and then the cross-steps. I usually take two cross-steps and then my left blocking leg and right ankle come into play. The movement continues through the knee, hips and back. When it comes to the shoulder, we have to try and pull it back as much as possible, while keeping the blocking leg tight and stable. The core needs to be stable as well. After I throw the javelin, I also have to control my running speed because I can’t cross the foul line, which is just a few metres ahead. That’s the most challenging part.
Your personal best has been 88.07 metres. What do you think it will take to cross that 90-metre barrier?
When I was throwing at the last Asian Games, I was in good shape but I was throwing the javelin with too much power. Sometimes, the javelin goes too high. If I had kept the javelin straight, my coach explained to me, I could have hit the 90-metre mark at the Asian Games. That mark is not too far away for me. It is achievable but for that I also need to improve in certain areas. There are many competitions in 2022 for me to try and match this feat.
How are you managing your training plans in a three-year Olympic cycle?
I think I have a lot of competitions this year that will help me train at levels in par with the Olympics. There are fewer competitions in 2023 but still a lot to train for. So, I have three years and I feel that’s enough to train at the best possible levels. But, like I said, my focus is completely on the World Championships and Diamond League events this year.
How did you tackle the pressures of the fame that came with winning the Olympic gold in Tokyo?
I don’t think I have ever attended so many interviews and seen so many new faces. Earlier, life was about training, getting some rest and training again. So all this definitely brings a lot of pressure. I was asked many questions, but I always gave my point of view and spoke from personal experiences.
There were many questions that I didn’t want to answer at all. I also met many people. But when I arrived here (in San Diego), I left all of that commotion behind. I am back to the life of an athlete. I just want to focus on the sport and my future targets.
Indian athletes connect with people at so many levels. I believe even if you win something big, you are still the same human being, the same person. When I won in Tokyo, many people around me thought I’d change as a person—but athletes never change.
What has been the impact of other Indian Olympic athletes—the likes of Abhinav Bindra, Anju Bobby George—on your progress?
Such athletes help us all mentally so much. When Abhinav Bindra ji won a gold medal, he broke this barrier, this doubt that Indians can’t win medals at the Olympics. Anju Bobby George ji has won at the global level. Athletes like me learn from that. There’s that mental barrier that athletes like these two have broken. That, in turn, helps the other junior, upcoming athletes. They still motivate us. So it is definitely a massive help. Helping someone mentally is a big thing. Every athlete trains physically but sometimes they get caught out mentally.
How do you maintain a balance between normal life and the life of an athlete?
Honestly, I love travelling and exploring new places. I try to enjoy it as much as possible with my team. We talk about sports. When I am free, I speak to a friend or with my family. We can’t venture out too much because of the pandemic.
When I was in Patiala too (training at the National Institute of Sports), we wouldn’t go out at all but that didn’t stop my life. If I train well, I stay happy and feel good. I think the most important thing for any athlete is the training. That’s something that never leaves your mind. It becomes a habit. I was away from the training circuit for a while, but when I got here and started again, I felt very happy. I feel like my life as an athlete is my personal life right now, and I’m enjoying that.