Neeraj adds a Diamond to his trophy collection

Published on Sep 09, 2022 10:59 PM IST

The Olympic champion signs off the year with a series of podiums and the Diamond Trophy, a first for an Indian.

Olympian Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra becomes the first-ever Indian to win the Diamond League trophy (Neeraj Chopra Twitter) PREMIUM
Olympian Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra becomes the first-ever Indian to win the Diamond League trophy (Neeraj Chopra Twitter)
By, New Delhi

Shortly after Neeraj Chopra had aced his maiden Diamond League Final on Thursday in Zurich, the 32 winners gathered on a diamond-shaped podium for the customary group photograph. Standing in a mauve body-hugging t-shirt, his trademark headband holding back his flowing locks, Chopra hung around in the last row, just behind the giant frame of shot put champion Joe Kovacs. Comfortable of his place in the galaxy of greatness -- pole vault legend Renaud Lavillenie had earlier walked up to him for a chat -- the 24-year-old reaffirmed his pedigree in the annals of India's athletics history.

Chopra lived up to the top billing with an effort of 88.44m in his second attempt. There was some competition from Tokyo silver medallist Jakub Vadlejch, but the 31-year-old couldn't go beyond 86.94m to finish second. This was the sixth straight time Chopra has bettered the Czech, fifth in this year alone. Germany's Julian Weber was third with a best of 83.73m.

Result apart, what would please Chopra most is his redoubtable consistency. In the six events he participated in this year, he finished at least second in each of them. The 88m mark was breached six times, the 89m barrier was felled thrice, and the national record was rewritten twice. Chopra's season average was an impressive 88.59m. He now heads into a two-week vacation before coming home.

"I am very happy with my season, particularly my consistency," he said. "Personally, I am not satisfied with 88.44m, but considering it was the last competition of the season and the body was tiring, I'll take it. There was an injury too (groin strain), so quite a few ups and downs which I handled well. I rate Diamond League very highly, and I really wanted to bring the trophy home," Chopra said.

The genesis of this consistency lies in the backroom work that started late last year. After a series of hectic celebrations that threw his calendar -- and fitness -- off gear, Chopra reunited with his coach Klaus Bartonietz and physiotherapist Ishaan Marwaha in December. Training resumed in January in Chula Vista, followed by stints in Turkey and Finland. The 10-odd kilos gained post-Olympics were gradually shed, and technical and physical strength was systematically restored.

"The real work was done in the off-season. We started the training late as we wanted to peak towards the Asian Games, but its postponement meant we had to redraw our plans. There were some technical areas that we worked on. Earlier, I used to expend a lot of effort but half of it would be wasted due to technical errors. So, we decided to address that," he said.

These technical adjustments were primarily related to his angle of release. A higher angle is directly proportional to the elevation that the spear gains, but it eats into the distance. Kashinath Naik, who coached Chopra at the Army Sports Institute in Pune, reckons the angle did go down this season, resulting in Chopra consistently going beyond 88m.

"Look, he always had a neat technique, that's why he could throw beyond 85m from a young age. Last season, his angle of release was slightly higher. The ideal angle should be around 33-35 degrees, and I feel he is throwing closer to that. It has given him an additional metre or so this year," the 2010 CWG bronze medallist said.

Chopra's uncomplicated technique, Naik feels, is a throwback to 2016 Rio Olympics champion German Thomas Rohler's style. With a personal best of 93.90m, the 30-year-old Rohler has the third-best throw of all time to his name -- certainly not a bad exponent to emulate.

"I think Neeraj needs a bit of strength work to get to that 90m mark. Surely he wants to overcome that barrier, and I can say with certainty that next year he'll cross it multiple times. He just needs some more strength," Naik explained.

Chopra is not fretting over that unchecked box. "I am not one bit disappointed. I am happier winning competitions than going after 90 metres. That is a magical number and has become some sort of a barrier, but it doesn't weigh me down," he said.

"Sometimes, even 85m is enough because of the conditions. That doesn't mean one can't throw farther, but it is important to do what is needed on that particular day."

While that is sound logic, the Indian ace would be acutely aware that three throwers -- Anderson Peters, Vadlejch, and Arshad Nadeem -- went past the mark this season. The list of challengers will increase once the likes of Johannes Vetter, Rohler, and Andreas Hoffman -- each of who has thrown 90m -- regain form and fitness.

Chopra's great strength, however, is the adaptability that has seen him log decent throws across the world. His best efforts have come in varied geographies, from dry Patiala to humid Tokyo, to chilly Stockholm. At the Kuortane Games earlier this season, Chopra opened with a relatively modest 86.69m after sussing out the wet conditions, enough to win the event. He even slipped and fell awkwardly in his third attempt and immediately withdrew.

Another off-shoot of his growing maturity is the way he has decided to handle his downtime. The post-Olympics hysteria saw him gain weight and lose strength, and Chopra is determined to keep his diet in check this off-season.

"Of course, it is important to relax and have fun, but I won't be off training completely, and neither will I be negligent with my diet. The celebrations after the Olympics were new for me as well, but I feel I am better equipped to balance things out this time. Next year will be very important with World Championships and Asian Games, and of course, building up for the Olympics. Hopefully, it will be a good one," he said.

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    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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