Uncapped 19-year-old India archer Neeraj Chauhan was driven into penury as the novel coronavirus had begun to spread its ugly tentacles, forcing him to sell vegetables to make ends meet. As he hit the road as a vendor in the face of the all-pervading poverty two years ago, Chauhan was left with no option but to contemplate quitting the sport. He didn't take that extreme step, though. Instead, thanks to his resilience and never-say-die attitude, the archer from Meerut is now bracing for his World Cup debut in three months, followed by an Asian Games participation.
"Sabzi bechte bechte, archery se kaafi dur chala gaya tha (Was selling vegetable, and had lost touch with archery) but thankfully we got help from the sports ministry and got back to archery," Chauhan told PTI from Sonipat. Chauhan, who grew up near the Kailash Prakash Stadium where his father Akshay Lal Chauhan worked as a cook for 30 years in its mess, took up archery after being picked by the academy in 2013, and went on to win a handful of medals at the national level.
But the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 halted his progress as the archer, along with his two elder brothers (one of them a national boxer), got down to selling vegetables. To survive, they sold vegetables on the bylanes of Meerut for nearly two years. "Majboori thi (we're helpless). Dad earned about Rs 7-8,000 and everything had stopped after lockdown, so it was all about survival -- archery and boxing took a back seat," he said of his days of struggle.
Their plight was highlighted by Archery Association of India (AAI) president Arjun Munda, who had requested then union sports minister Kiren Rijiju for help. Rijiju's department took stock of the situation and promptly sanctioned Chauhan and his brother Sunil financial assistance of Rs 5 lakh each under the ministry's Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay National Welfare Fund. Since then he joined the Sports Authority of India where his transformation came under coach Jitendra Chauhan. That he had sharp focus and stable head was known to him since childhood when he would easily outperform his friends in the game of seven stones, which is also called 'Satolia' or 'Lagori' in many places.
"I used to love target-hitting games, so archery naturally became my first love," Chauhan said. At the senior level however, it was a different ball game and he realised it after failing to make the cut in two India selection trials last year. "I knew there was something missing and I was not up to the mark," he said, adding that his real transformation came under coach Jitendra. "He kept working on me all the time from day one, and I'm blessed to have him as my coach."
For the Asian Games and the preceding three World Cups, the national federation had a three-week long trial, with heavyweights like Tarundeep Rai, Atanu Das, Praveen Jadhav also participating in the elimination round. Chauhan edged out the Tokyo Olympian duo of Das and Jadhav to join Rai, Jayanta Talukdar and Sachin Gupta in the four-member squad. "Coach sir told me to focus on my shooting without looking at the opponents. 'They are the ones who have to prove, not you,' sir said and I shot fearlessly," he said about his winning mantra.
The coach is confident that Chauhan would make it big but he does not want his ward to rush things. "I just kept pushing him, he did all the hard work," the coach said. "His best quality is to stay calm and grounded in any situation, he does not get excited too easily, nor does he give up hope after a disappointment. "We are working on his mental game and also biomechanics, hope he lives up to the expectations," the coach said. The three stages of the World Cups are slated in Antalya (April 17-24), Shanghai (May 15-22) and Paris (June 19-26) before the Asian Games in China in September.