“Achha, mota lag raha tha main?”asked Neeraj Chopra with a chuckle as talked about his first-place finish at the Lausanne Diamond League during a virtual meet with Indian reporters. “Maybe I have. I must have put on some fat. Because of the injury, the training wasn’t as intense but the diet was the same. But my speed had nothing to do with my weight or looking bulkier. I could have been faster on the run-up. But I knew I should push myself only to a level my body could handle.”
The Lausanne Diamond League, which took place on Friday, was where Chopra had returned to competition after nursing a muscle strain for more than a month. That evening, the temperatures had dropped to 16 degrees Celsius in the Swiss city. Athletes, wearing extra layers of clothing, struggled to stay warm between their attempts.
“I was wearing a jacket but it was still quite chilly,” he said. “There was definitely a question in my mind about the injury—whether or not I can push myself. For the first three-four throws I kept trying, but in my mind there was a barrier. I changed my focus, warmed up more, did a few more exercises.”
His coach, Dr. Klaus Bartonietz, told him to increase the speed and start his run-up further behind, so he could gain the required acceleration without risking crossing the foul line. Though thoughts of aggravating the injury kept echoing in his mind, Chopra sprinted in and hurled the spear to a distance of 87.66m on his fifth and penultimate throw. Far from his personal best of 89.94m, but still the best of the day. Even on a day he wasn’t feeling his best, Chopra got the job done, much like he consistently has in the big-ticket events for almost five years now.
India has not produced a serial winner quite like Chopra. The javelin star had made winning a habit even before that August night in Tokyo in 2021, when he roared to a historic victory. Chopra’s gold in javelin was independent India’s first medal in track and field at the Olympics and only their second individual gold. It had come with a fair warning—the athlete from Panipat had broken the world record to win the 2016 World U-20 Championships, won a gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast and the 2018 Asian Games.
Importantly, his appetite for success had not dimmed one bit since becoming the Olympic champion. In 2022, be bagged a silver at the World Championships despite picking up a groin injury and finished the season with another gold medal at the Diamond League Final in Zurich. He began 2023 on a high as well, finishing first at the Doha Diamond League. With two first-place finishes in the two Diamond League events, Chopra currently tops the men’s javelin leaderboard for 2023, with 16 points. He is also the World No. 1.
“Confidence is everything in sport,” said the 25-year-old during the interaction arranged by Sports Authority of India. “You have to believe in yourself, that you have thrown a good distance once, you can do it again. In the two Diamond League events in 2023, the conditions weren’t ideal. There was a lot of headwind in Doha. That makes it difficult to run as well as direct the javelin. In Lausanne, it was cold and I wasn’t sure how much I could push because of the previous injury. But I knew I could still throw a good distance. Maybe a few years ago I didn’t have that experience or belief, but I do now.”
Apart from his muscle memory for big throws, Chopra’s belief is also grounded in the work he puts in behind the scenes. Javelin is a potent mix of power, strength, speed and technique. While you need a strong upper body to carry, twist and hurl the spear, the velocity comes from the legs and speed you build up on the runway.
“The more speed you build up, the more load on your blocking leg (left for Chopra) before you release the javelin,” Chopra said. “My coach (Bartonietz is a biomechanics expert) has done some research on it and he found that the blocking leg takes 10 times the body weight of the athlete in that split second.”
It takes a life of hard work and discipline to build that strength.
“I don’t feel good if I don’t train for so long,” he said. “If you rest for more than a week, it brings your fitness level down. At such times, I also tend to eat a lot so I end up gaining weight. I try and do some physical activity if there is a long break, be it running. After Tokyo, I took too much rest. I have learnt my lesson from that. Earlier, maybe till five years ago, there were times when I would think, ‘I am feeling very sleepy today, or I have a cold, or it is raining.’ Even then, if I missed training because of such excuses I would feel very bad. Now, I train for my peace of mind. That discipline is ingrained.”
Over the years, and especially after the Olympics, Chopra said he has got better at communicating his craft and what it takes to be an elite level athlete for his audience. He may not quite be as eloquent as he in on the javelin runway, but he is always earnest. The confidence he radiates is underpinned by small-town humility.
Chopra was half-amused, half-tired as the questions over him breaching the elusive 90m mark were raised again. He had spelt it out as one of his big goals after winning the Olympic medal but hasn’t yet achieved it, despite reaching agonisingly close to it.
“I feel like it’s a matter of time,” he said. “But I don’t go into a competition thinking about it because that will just add to the pressure. My main aim is to win, be it with an 85m throw or an 89m throw. If I am competing in a field of some of the best javelin throwers in the world, some of whom have breached the 90m mark and still winning, for me that’s good enough at the moment.”
The two first-place finishes in the Diamond League events have given Chopra some freedom in picking and choosing his competitions. The focus now is on preparing for the World Championships, which will held from 19-27 August in Budapest, Hungary.
“I have a World Championship medal, but not gold, so that’s the big goal at the moment,” said Chopra. “Most likely I won’t compete anywhere else before that. I am working on my fitness for the World Championship. I feel I still have some way to go in that. I am satisfied with my performances this year; I won’t say I am very happy with them. That’s why I need this training block not only to make sure that I have completely recovered from injury but also to achieve my peak fitness. I will work as hard as it takes for that. Only if I feel like I am a 100 per cent physically, will I be able to push myself during the World Championship.”
Whether his achieves his goal of a World Championship gold this year or not, Chopra has consistently raised the bar for excellence in India in the last few years.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.