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Tuesday, Dec 10, 2019

Neeraj Chopra at the tipping point

Neeraj Chopra stands on this ground every day, a few steps away from the figure, a few metres away from the Olympics countdown clock, and goes through his action in his mind—the feel of the javelin in his hand, the way he grips it.

other-sports Updated: Jul 25, 2019 13:56 IST
Avishek Roy
Avishek Roy
Hindustan Times, Vidya nagar (Karnataka)
A file photo of Indian javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra.
A file photo of Indian javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra.(PTI)
         

The countdown clock is in your face the moment you step into the main complex at the sprawling Inspire Institute of Sports (IIS). It’s ticking off the days to the start of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; on July 16, it reads—374 days to go.

A little further down and past the vast combat hall reverberating with the thwack of boxers hitting heavy bags, and wrestlers and judokas hitting the mats, is the athletics track. It is marked by the sculpture of a thrower—his javelin pointed skywards, his chiselled arms at full stretch, knees crouched, the front heel planted firmly on the ground—a freezeframe of that tipping point when all the power in the body is transferred into the long, slim spear.

Neeraj Chopra stands on this ground every day, a few steps away from the figure, a few metres away from the Olympics countdown clock, and goes through his action in his mind—the feel of the javelin in his hand, the way he grips it. Then running up to the mark with powerful strides— upright torso and knees driving up to the core—till with the last few steps he begins to twist into a side-on approach, like a tearaway fast bowler in the mould of Shoaib Akhtar, and lands on his anchoring foot with his body uncoiling behind it, the hyperextended right arm coming up from behind and then he is at that moment.

The tipping point.

That fraction of a second when all of his energy is transferred into an inanimate object that sails up and ahead, as he arcs into a tumble, landing on his hands on the ground. He sees the javelin sailing far.

“I do it again and again,” he says, “I constantly repeat the technique in my mind. I stand on the track, see the ground, memorise my action. So that when I start I don’t feel new and I can quickly get into the groove.”

Chopra, 21, is at a tipping point himself.

A year back he was the most sensational thing to happen to Indian athletics since PT Usha missed a medal by 1/100th of a second at the 1984 Olympics.

The Haryana athlete had broken the world junior record in 2016 (becoming the only Indian athlete to hold a world record at any age group), and had rapidly added more distance to his throw as he grew, setting a new national record in 2018 with a throw that would have gotten him a bronze at the Rio Games in 2016.

Here was India’s first genuine medal contender in track and field, the holy- grail of all Olympic disciplines, in decades.

Then there was an injury to his throwing arm. Then a surgery. A lengthy lay-off, and with it, a big question mark—would he be able to get it back together for Tokyo?

So here he is now, just a few days away from throwing again. Not a javelin, which comes later, but first something less unwieldy, like a medicine ball. Then increase the load with heavier balls. Then graduate to a javelin that’s lighter than the one used in competition.

He has not held an actual javelin since the arthroscopic surgery on his throwing arm to remove bone fragments from his elbow on May 2, and he is itching to get his hands on one.

For Indian javelin throwers, a serious injury that needed a surgery to the throwing arm would have simply meant the end of a career. But not for Chopra, who has had the opportunity to work with some of the best in the business—from the surgery to the rehabilitation—following a structured roadmap to recovery that would not be out of place in say, China, or the US, both sporting superpowers.

“I want to make a strong comeback,” Chopra says, “The target is only Olympics.

“Physically, I am feeling strong. Had this been another sport, I would have comeback in two months. But in javelin there is a jerk involved and that’s why we have to be extra careful because the load will be on the elbow.”

Chopra is working on his recovery at the High Performance Centre at IIS, the 42-acre sports centre run by JSW Sports, part of the OP Jindal business group, monitored by a battery of experts—a sports scientist specialising in recovery protocols, a strength and conditioning coach, an exercise physiologist, a physiotherapist, and a nutritionist.

His daily routine is as rigorous as it gets for an athlete. His first session of the day begins at 9 in the morning and lasts close to four hours. Then it’s lunch and sleep. He is back at the gym by 4:30 for a second session that can last up to three hours.

Much of that work is focused around his elbow extensions and the musculoskeletal system around the elbow and the shoulders.

Before the work began, Chopra’s team ran tests to study the differences between his throwing side and his non-throwing side, as well as the range of motion of his elbow.

“Neeraj falls under the category of elastic throwers, who depend on maximum flexibility,” says Sumeshan Moodley, the South African who is a senior physiotherapist at IIS, and is also the head of medical at IPL team Delhi Capitals, also partly owned by JSW.

“Compared to a power thrower who relies on muscle bulk, someone like Neeraj can’t be too muscular, but need his full range of motion.”

This means looking at the entire sequence in which his muscles fire and his joints move in the process of throwing—from the lower back which arches into a compressed spring, to the stress on the anchoring leg, all the way through to his rotating shoulder and into that straightening elbow.

“His strength and conditioning is focused on improving his strength and function through his throw from the toes to the finger,” Moodley says.

IIS’s strength and conditioning coach, Spencer Mackay, who is from Scotland and was a coach with the Scottish Rugby Union working with the women’s national team and the men’s Rugby 7s squad, points out that throwing a javelin is not dissimilar to what a fast bowler does in cricket, except that the thrower has to come to a dead stop at the peak of his momentum, while a bowler does a follow through.

“The javelin, of all the throws, holds the most nuance,” Mackay says. “It requires a lot of lower body force production, requires translation of that force through the body with no loss of that force production and ultimately the summation of that force into the hand, into the javelin.”

Despite the fear that an injury brings with it, Chopra looks at this experience from a positive viewpoint: For the first time in his short career, the biomechanics of his throwing was being broken down into its minute components.

“Javelin requires use of big muscles first, like the shoulder, then the elbow,” Chopra says. “I have good flexibility in my hands, but I was doing a lot of weight training and my shoulders were tight, so I was not using my shoulder and that was putting the load on the elbow.”

A great year and a setback

Last season, Chopra was on a roll. He breached the 85m mark, the qualification mark for the Olympics, on nine occasions.

At the Commonwealth Games, he recorded a throw of 86.47 and improved the distance to 88.06, his personal best and sixth best in world for the season, at the Jakarta Asian Games to win gold. Only three throwers had crossed 90m last year, all from Germany, Johannes Vetter (92.70), Andreas Hofmann (92.06) and Rio Olympics Champion Thomas Rohler (91.78). Neeraj was inching closer to challenging the very best in the world, inching closer to the 90m mark, when his flight was brutally cut short by an elbow injury.

At the start of the year, Chopra began to feel tight around his elbow while at a camp in South Africa under national coach and legendary thrower Uwe Hohn.

“I was feeling that something was wrong but then with us athletes something always keeps happening in the body,” Chopra says. “If I gave it some rest, I was able to throw. Sometimes I felt absolutely fine, sometimes my elbow would lock and I would just press around it and it would be fine.”

On his return from South Africa on March 30, he began training at the Sports Authority of India centre at Patiala for the Asian Championships, and the elbow became more troublesome. An MRI scan revealed floating bone fragments around the elbow.

“I skipped the Asian meet. I could have thrown but now there was fear inside me,” Chopra says.

A Difficult call

A barrage of advice came his way. The World Championship was nearing, so was the one-year Olympic qualification cycle (it started on May 1). A surgery meant a screeching halt to the season, uncertainty over Olympic qualification, a no-show at the World Championship.

This was going to be possibly the hardest decision in Chopra’s life; he already knew the pain of missing out on an Olympics.

Back in 2016, when he had set the junior world record with a throw of 86.48m, it had come just 12 days after the qualification cut-off date for the Rio Olympics.

One doctor told Chopra he should push through and compete at the Worlds and then at the Olympics and think of surgery only later.

He wanted a second opinion, and went to Mumbai-based orthopaedic surgeon Dinshaw Pardiwala, famous for his work with sports stars like wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Olympic medallists Yogeshwar Dutt and PV Sindhu, as well as cricketers from the India team.

“He said you can push yourself only to a limit,” Chopra says. “I was already facing problems of hindered movement.”

Chopra then sought the counsel of Phogat and Dutt and after hearing of their experience with surgery and then recovery, decided to take the plunge.

“Mentally I was in a better space after that,” Chopra says. “There was no looking back.”

Eyes on tokyo

The Olympic qualification period is on full swing and time is at a premium. Chopra needs to get back into competitive action, get back into his groove, and achieve the qualifying mark, all by June 29, 2020.

But the last thing he would want is to rush the process.

His return to competitive action will be charted only after he gets to that point where he is able to do javelin drills, but it is unlikely that he will come back any time before January. A top Athletics Federation of India official said that coach Hohn is also of the opinion that he should return only next year after complete recovery.

Moodley says that the recovery work is going to plan.

“Initially we lost about 2-3 weeks because of inappropriate tissue healing but we have been able to catch up and in a way we seem to be 3-4 steps ahead at this point,” he says.

“Whenever we have introduced new concepts or increased the resistance, his body has responded without any issues. He is not experiencing any fatigue, any symptoms from the previous injury. These are good signs and as a result it has kept us optimistic and motivated too.

“From sports science point of view we are looking to add things which will aid his performance towards maximum efficiency to reach further distances. Get as close to the 90m mark and further,” he adds.

As they approach a return to throwing, Chopra and his team will enter the most sensitive part of his rehabilitation.

Mackay likes to call this process the “artistic part”. This is where Chopra’s understanding of his body and his skills at explaining how he is feeling will become critical. It is also the period which will test his mental strength the most.

“When he returns to the throwing process the sensations in his arm will be different because he will start throwing with implements like balls, medicine balls and later with a lighter javelin,” says Mackay. “The nuance of a javelin is very particular.”

A lighter javelin will feel very different, Mackay points out, to a competition javelin, which weighs 800gm. The athlete will have to make adjustments in his head for that, and continue to listen to his body.

“The requirement in that phase is quite descriptive and honest of how an athlete is feeling, in terms of sensations, with that injury. In the initial phase (of rehab) we can take him up to a point and set our markers and tests telling us when he is ready,” Mackay says. “But once he starts throwing there is no direct nature of measurement in terms of what we have achieved, and therefore it is more artistic in nature and really based on the feel, subject to specific movements. I can’t feel what he is feeling. That’s a kind of artistic shift. His aptitude will be a big part,” explains Mackay who has also worked with Vinesh Phogat, Babita, and boxer Nikhat Zareen and witnessed them making successful returns to sporting action.

Mackay has also worked with Chopra at different points since 2016, and began with plenty of difficulties when it came to communication—when he first met Chopra, he had come with high jumper Tejaswin Shankar. Chopra spoke almost no English, and Mackay spoke no Hindi.

“I went to Tejaswin with the English, he went to Neeraj with Hindi and then came back to me with English,” Mackay says. “So it was a three-way channel.”

But now those apprehensions are gone.

“He has arrived with greater understanding of what he is expected to do and why. His application of training is fantastic and his aptitude is far, far improved. He is much more aware of his body and its requirement. And as you can see I can speak to him without anybody’s help,” Mackay says with a smile.

There is even a possibility that Chopra will be back to throwing and be strong enough and comfortable enough to make it to the World Championships, which is also an Olympic qualification event, and begins September 28 in Doha. But that’s not at all on Chopra’s mind. The target, he says, is not just to get back into competition, but to get back better, stronger, more skilful.

To get back and hit the 90m mark straightaway.