A few centuries ago, his ancestors migrated to Haryana to take up the sword for Balaji Baji Rao in the third battle of Panipat. Today, Neeraj Chopra, one of their descendants, a proud Ror Maratha settled in the Jat heartland, is taking the legacy forward by wielding the modern-day avatar of the spear to spectacular effects.
Last month, as the nation celebrated the bronze and silver Olympic medals won by Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu, a stupendous achievement and gold medal haul by a world champion was almost overshadowed by the hype. Standing tall at an inch short of six feet, Neeraj Chopra, 18, broke the javelin world record at the IAAF World Under-20 Athletics Championship.
Chopra’s feat is unprecedented in India’s athletics history. His is the first javelin gold in the World Championships. There have been two bronze medals in discus throw and a long jump gold medal in seniors, won by Anju Bobby George, but javelin? Not before.
Speaking with HT Brunch at the Le Meridien hotel’s eau de Monsoon, over orange juice and Tandoori Broccoli, the champion opens up about Tokyo 2020, Katrina Kaif and being an obese child. Excerpts from the chat:
What is it like to become a world champion at 18?
The feeling is gradually sinking in. I got the first message of congratulations from the Prime Minister. And then it was followed by the Chief Minister of Haryana, Olympic winner Rajyavardhan Rathore, cricketers VVS Laxman and Shikhar Dhawan. Then came messages from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and film stars Shilpa Shetty and Katrina Kaif. But the most joyous moment was standing on the podium. I have tears in my eyes every time the national anthem plays at a sporting event.
How did the people of your village in Khandra, Panipat, react to the victory?
They were waiting for the flight from Poland to land. As I came out of the airport, even at 2am, there was a crowd of more than 100 people waiting for me with garlands. I got a traditional drumbeat welcome, as happens in Haryana.
When did you develop an interest in the javelin?
As an obese child, at the age of 11, I weighed 80 kilos. To get into shape, I visited the Panipat Stadium during vacations. My pocket money was about Rs 30 and many days I didn’t even have money for a glass of juice. I travelled by bus for about 17 kilometres to reach the stadium and returned with my uncle who worked in Panipat city. Although I was running to shed weight, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I used to stand at some distance and watch my senior Jaiveer, who has represented Haryana in javelin, practice. One day, at his behest, I tried the javelin. I discovered I could throw it far and the realisation helped me regain my self-esteem.
Jaiveer was the first to identify my javelin potential. Then he left for Jalandhar and my practise stopped for a few months. There were very few facilities to practise javelin in Panipat, least of them the mud track that we ran on. When I decided to resume training seriously, I shifted to a sports nursery in Panchkula. I was 14. I practised on a synthetic track for the first time and got to train with athletes who were playing at the national level. I played my first junior nationals in Lucknow in 2012 and broke the national record with a throw of 68.46 metres.
And then you got injured...
Yes, the day I returned to Panchkula, while playing basketball with friends, the ring of the basket broke and I fell. I fractured my wrist. My schedule went awry for the next six months. I thought my career was over. The injury was on the same hand I use to throw my javelin.
I returned home for two months to recover. My father is a farmer and my mother a homemaker. I have two younger sisters and we stay in an extended joint family. With a good diet and lack of activity my weight shot up from 82 to 93 in two months.
To shed this weight, I had to work hard. I trained three times a day. I was working towards the Youth Nationals which would pave the basis for selection in the World Youth Games. I did that for four months and returned to 83kg.
When did you first play for India?
After the youth nationals at Guntur where I won silver, I was selected for the World Youth championships in Ukraine. In 2015, I was chosen for the National Games in Kerala. For the first time, in the camp, I got to practise with better-quality javelins, used internationally. Inferior quality javelins are heavier and can lead to injury: those with better material travel longer in the air. I threw it to a distance of 73.45 metres. In the same games, Rajinder Singh, my senior from Haryana, created a national record with a distance of 82.23.
What is the toughest part about hurling a javelin?
Everything, although it looks very easy to those watching! We pull the javelin forward and release it with a jerk. You need to throw your body forward while turning your arm into a whiplash. You should increase your speed gradually. The toughest part is applying the brakes two metres before the line when you are at full momentum. It is like applying emergency brakes to a car at high speed. The biggest risk is of injury to the knee, back or shoulder.
Tell us about the time you fell down while making the world record...
I don’t fall during training. But during competitions, I apply all my might and end up falling. My rival from South Africa had improved his record by more than five metres with a throw of 80.52. It put immense pressure on me and I got fired up and put in my 100 per cent in my second throw. The moment I released the javelin at the world championship I knew it was a special throw. After years of training, a javelin thrower can make out if the throw is good or bad. My rhythm, the speed and the power I applied were all good. The Athletics Federation of India sent me to train in Poland, the venue of the Junior World championship, three months in advance. So I got used to the weather and the food much before the actual competition. I was confident of doing well there.
What does a world champ do after hours?
I listen to music on my iPhone 5S.
I like listening to Haryanvi Raagini singers such as Rajender Kharkia and KD. I like watching action films such as Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky series and comedy movies featuring Akshay Kumar. I also play games on the phone such as Javelin Master 2, Brothers in Arms and Asphaltate.
How tough is it being an athlete in rural India?
I left home when I was 14, owing to lack of facilities. My formal education was disturbed after class 9. My dream is that villagers need not shift to a city the way I shifted to Panchkula. Athletes from Haryana are winning at the national, international and Olympics level but my village still does not have a playground. Whenever I stay there, I need to practice on a road. If we are to become an Olympian nation, every village should have a stadium and get coaches from the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, where I now train.
What is an average day for you at NIS Patiala like?
I train every morning from 6am to 10am followed by breakfast. After that I rest a little to allow muscle recovery. Then it is time for lunch and a few hours reading, relaxing and listening to music. At 4 it is back to the ground for training till about 8. I also go to the gym and do medicine ball exercises and side-holding exercises to improve my core strength. I generally have roti, three vegetables and kheer for dinner. I used to be a vegetarian but began to have chicken when I stayed in Europe to prepare for the world championship.
How much does not qualifying for Rio bother you?
It rankles a lot. I was preparing to qualify for Rio. A few days before qualifying, I sustained a back injury. It wasn’t too bad but I returned home by a Haryana Roadways bus and that aggravated it. I participated in the Indian GP and won gold with a throw of 79.54 but my injury worsened. For the next 20 days I rested and did physiotherapy. There was a competition in Germany and I began training there. I missed out on Olympic qualification but after the world championship, I am confident of getting a medal for the country in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Before this, I’ll put all my might behind doing well in the World Championship in London next year, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games.
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From HT Brunch, September 25, 2016
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