How Neeraj Chopra battled injuries to make it to Tokyo Olympics
In July last year, Neeraj Chopra expressed desire to participate at the World Athletics Championships after Athletics Federation of India (AFI) announced that he has qualified. The javelin thrower had been away from competitions for nearly eight months due to injury, but a throw of 83.90m in September 2018 at the 68th All India Inter-Services Athletics Championships in Jalahalli earned him the berth. Despite having undergone surgery on his troublesome right elbow in May, the Haryana-born athlete was still eager to participate at the Doha Games.
But unfortunately for Neeraj, things didn’t pan out as he had expected. Still recovering after surgery, the athlete was advised by the federation and his coaches to heal his body. He had to give the World Championships a miss.
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“I had trained really hard for the World Championships. It was constantly on my mind, whenever I was at the training. But injury ki wajah se sab gadbad ho gaya,” he told Hindustan Times in an exclusive telephonic interview from Potchefstroom, South Africa.
A surgery just a year before the Olympics could really hamper an athlete’s confidence. The fact that he had to stay away from the sport could have also derailed Neeraj’s momentum after a successful 2018. It was the year in which he won gold medals at both Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. He also broke the national record with a throw of 88.06 metres and missed a medal at the prestigious IAAF Diamond League by a whisker. But the laurels at a price. By November 2018, Neeraj started experiencing pain in his elbow, the pivotal joint for a javelin thrower.
“I started feeling my injury back in November 2018. I continued to train, but was not having too many issues despite the pain. But it aggravated by April,” he said. The inflammation in the joint caused Neeraj so much pain that he was unable to event pick up a javelin.
“The X-rays showed severe damage and I required surgery, which I got done in May last year.”
After the surgery, a lonely, lengthy period of rebuilding and rehabilitation began for Neeraj, first in Mumbai and then at JSW’s Inspire Institute of Sport campus in Bellary, Karnataka. This was the time when he was advised to not do too much hand movements. To keep his morale up, Neeraj indulged in fitness exercises and continued to challenge himself each day at the rehab.
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“After surgery, I immediately started cycling, because I was unable to move my hand. Later, I started hand and strengthening exercises and slowly started gaining my strength. I kept myself motivated by setting a target for myself each day to do better than the previous day. I was unable to participate in tournaments, but I was able to train, which kept my morale up,” he says.
During this time, Neeraj also separated from coach Uwe Hohn and started training alongside bio-mechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz. He moved back to National Institute of Sports in Patiala in August, where he trained non-stop till November, before travelling to South Africa with Bartonietz. Advice from friends and family kept Neeraj moving forward and not get bogged down. “Everyone told me that injuries are a part of an athlete’s life’. They told me not to worry too much about time off the track and just focus on my recovery.”
The setback of missing the World Championships motivated the 22-year-old to set up new goals for himself for the Olympic year. Neeraj admits it took a while to accept his reality but adds he did not get too upset about not being able to participate at Worlds. “I had only one thing in my mind - that I have an injury, there was nothing I could do. Ye samay bhi kat jaega. Whether I remain happy or sad, I had to accept my situation.”
“So I convinced myself if I cannot perform at Worlds, I will work even harder for the Olympics next year. I kept myself happy. Aesa nahi ki bohot dukhi raha main.”
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In October, Neeraj announced a return at the Ranchi Nationals, but was dissuaded once again by the federation and his coaching staff. Neeraj’s support staff was worried that he had not completely adapted to the new techniques to avoid aggravating injury, and were concerned he could revert to his older techniques in a competition environment. Eventually, Neeraj decided to pull out from the tournament.
Explaining his decision, Neeraj says: “My coach, and federation advised me ‘you have just started throwing after surgery. You are being safe at training, but if you push yourself harder at the tournament, the injury might get worse’. It was also not a very important tournament. So, I also thought since I have already missed the World Championship, and the entire year has passed by, why to take a risk for the nationals.”
But now, Neeraj is glad he waited to make a return. By October, he was confident of throwing a distance of 82-83m. Returning to competition for the first time since November 2018, Neeraj threw a whopping 87.86m at ACNW League Meet in Potchefstroom, South Africa, and cleared the Olympic qualification mark of 85m to book himself a ticket to Tokyo. The impact of Neeraj’s achievement can be measured from the fact that Grenada’s Anderson Peters had thrown 86.89m to win the gold medal at the World Championships in 2019. If Neeraj had participated at Worlds and thrown the same distance, he would have won the gold.
“I feel proud of making a strong comeback. Participating in a competition after 1.5 years and clearing the Olympic mark gives me immense satisfaction,” he says.
Now that the Olympic qualification barrier has been crossed, Neeraj still has over six months to prepare himself for the biggest stage, where he could become the first Indian since 1900 to win an Olympic medal in track-and-field events. But before Tokyo, he is keeping his eyes fixed on the Federation Cup and IAAF Diamond League in Doha, both of which will take place in April.
So, a day after booking an Olympic spot, the hardworking Indian athlete returned to the training ground. “My target of qualifying for Tokyo is accomplished. From the next day onwards, I restarted my original training schedule. The preparations have begun for the Tokyo Olympics and for all the competitions that are on the road,” he says.
While there were a few who doubted if he could make a strong comeback to the track, Neeraj says he always believed he would. “I believed I could qualify for Tokyo because I was having a good time at the training. Everything was working out and bhaari haath chal raha tha. So, I was expecting a good comeback. But the fact that I qualified on my first attempt, it makes me really happy,” he signed off.