Train. Win. Repeat. Neeraj Chopra’s mantra to stay on top

ByRutvick Mehta
Aug 29, 2023 12:28 AM IST

The world title in Budapest on Sunday underscores an incredible consistency that has made Neeraj Chopra’s name synonymous with javelin throw

Masses tend to attach faces with track and field events. Bring up 100m or 200m sprints and you’d think Usain Bolt or Florence-Griffith Joyner. Unless, of course, your mind also jumps to Carl Lewis. Bring up 400m and you’d think Michael Johnson. Bring up pole vault and you'd think Armand Duplantis. Bring up shot put and you'd think Ryan Crouser.

Chopra is 25 and has won every major title on offer (AFP) PREMIUM
Chopra is 25 and has won every major title on offer (AFP)

Bring up javelin throw and out comes Neeraj Chopra — his strand of hair jumping and pair of legs pounding along with a billion beating hearts back home. That image, no longer bound by the confines of India, has broadened to a global context.

If capturing the gold at Tokyo Olympics in 2021 — a first in Indian athletics — made people sit up and take notice of the steadily rising Indian talent, adding a gold at this year’s World Championships — a first in Indian athletics — has made people sit back and gape at the scale of Chopra’s soar. Already clubbed with the greatest ever produce in the field of sport from the country, Chopra’s triumph on Sunday has only pushed him further towards the finest ever in the field of world javelin.

Jan Zelezny, javelin's record-setting benchmark considered the greatest of all time by Chopra, backed up his 1992 Barcelona Games gold with the 1993 Stuttgart Worlds title when he was 27. The same age that Andreas Thorkildsen, the Norwegian two-time Olympic javelin champion, backed up his second gold at the 2008 Beijing Games with his first Worlds title in 2009 Berlin.

Chopra is 25, has won every major title on offer (Olympics, World Championships, Diamond League, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games) and is at the peak of his prowess with less than a year to go for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

What puts Chopra in the upper echelons of the craft that involves launching the javelin farther isn’t quite the odd shock-and-awe throws but sustained efforts of excellence. The last time Chopra ended a meet outside the top three was in September 2018, before undergoing elbow surgery. Since returning in 2020, he has had 15 victories from 19 meets, three second place finishes and only once has he walked away as the third best.

In his 19 events in that period, only twice has he dipped below 85m. Some of his bigger throws have come on the biggest of stages: 2021 Tokyo Olympics final (87.58m, 1st), 2022 Eugene Worlds final (88.13, 2nd), 2022 Zurich Diamond League Final (88.44, 1st), 2023 Budapest Worlds final (88.17, 1st).

Even the most experienced, battle-hardened and technically gifted athletes can bump into sport’s oft-repeated “just not my day” breaker at any point, not least when the stakes go higher (for reference, look no further than defending champion Anderson Peters crashing out in the qualifications in Budapest with a best of 78.49m). More often than not on such occasions, it is Chopra’s day.

“Training is the biggest thing, setting goals for the season and staying focussed on that,” Chopra said in a chat with the media after his win. “When the competition arrives, it's all about that in the mind — that today is the day. This competition (Worlds) comes after two years; the Olympics come once in four years. Toh mindset hai ki koi kasar nahi chodhni hai (The mindset is to not leave anything out there). That’s the feeling I build inside and push myself. That way in competitions, zyada josh aata hai.”

At times that josh can be detrimental, like it was for Chopra at last year’s Eugene Worlds where he pushed too hard in the final and then pulled out injured from the Commonwealth Games. He has learnt from that, and even though a groin injury forced him to alter plans and skip meets this season, Chopra believes it has worked well.

“It’s important that you’re not pegged back by major injuries,” Chopra explains another key component to his consistency bug. “And if you are, you get back to shape soon like before.”

David Turner, the head throws coach of UK’s Loughborough University where Chopra parked himself at the end of last year for endurance training, has seen closely the work he put in towards that.

“Neeraj is robust. He has essentially built his body up to withstand the demands of the event. That’s a huge part of javelin throwing,” Turner said. “I make a joke that you spend 80% of your time training just trying to not get injured, and 20% to throw it far. And you see that in his training, you see that in his approach.

“The other thing why I believe he’s been so consistently successful — and this is also a message to all young javelin throwers — is that once you became a senior international like Neeraj is now, it’s not about doing lots and lots of work. It’s about doing really high-quality work. Quality over quantity.”

Which is why Chopra isn’t desperately chasing the much talked about 90m mark anymore; at one point he did in his mind, he said. Alongside him in the final on Sunday were two 90-plus rivals, Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem and Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch, both of whom Chopra trumped with composure and belief in his consistency on the most unpredictable of settings.

Chopra is confident he too will cross the 90m shore eventually, even though he is more content sailing the classy consistency ship.

“Many times, winning medals for your country is more important than a throw. Here (Budapest), there were throwers who had gone above 90m, and you’re winning competitions competing with them,” he said. “So, I give a lot more importance to consistency. And that is what gives you confidence in such big stages.”

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