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'Touched by javelin god', Neeraj Chopra dazzles the world

Neeraj Chopra's journey from overweight teen to Olympic gold medalist inspires India's future generation of athletes.

Touched by javelin god, Neeraj Chopra dazzles the world

Neeraj Chopra's roar of victory after winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. (Photo Credit: Reddit)


Kamakshi Deshmukh

Published: 2 July 2024 4:36 AM GMT

"The javelin god touched him when he was a child and said you will have a rocket for a right arm."

The voice of the commentator at the World Athletics Championships resonated on the pious evening of August 25, 2023, in Budapest when Neeraj Chopra made his first attempt at the National Athletics Centre.

One throw and two targets were achieved.

The javelin star qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics and the World Championships final, pulling off a commendable throw of 88.77m.

The Olympic qualifying mark was 85.50m, with the automatic final qualification mark set for 83m.

Neeraj, who has a personal best of 89.94m, qualified for the Paris Olympics without taking any further throws.

Two days later, on August 27, 2023, the Olympic champion scripted history and went on to become the first Indian to win a gold medal in the World Athletic Championships.

‘Champion,’ the word has now become synonymous with Neeraj, with expectations of him emerging victorious every time he steps onto the field mounting in every competition.

But how did this young man from a village in Haryana become synonymous with victory?

Humble beginnings

Born in a Haryanvi Ror family in Khandra, a village in Panipat, Haryana, Neeraj was quite mischievous as a child.

But, food was the main problem. Particularly dollops of fresh cream and choorma, a fat-friendly mix of roti, ghee, and sugar, led to Neeraj being overweight in his teens.

To combat this, his family encouraged him to join a gym.

As the gym at the nearby village shut down, Neeraj was forced to move to another fitness centre in Panipat, about 15 km from his village.

Little did he know that his visit would change the course of his life forever.

Neeraj was jogging at the Shivaji stadium in the winter of 2010 when he caught the eye of javelin thrower Jai Choudhary, alias Jaiveer.

Jai recalled how it all began.

“One evening at the stadium I just asked him to throw the javelin," he said, adding, "It travelled about 35-40m which was pretty impressive for a first-timer."

Although Neeraj used to be overweight back then, his body was pretty flexible.

After having spotted a potential, Jai was keen to make Neeraj commit to the sport.

The teenager’s family agreed, but raising resources was a challenge. The spear costs around INR 15000-20000 whereas quality javelins used in international competitions cost up to INR 1 lakh or more.

So, instead of investing money into building their ancestral home, Neeraj’s family channelled their resources to him.

In 2011, a group of four athletes including Neeraj and Jai shifted to the Panchkula Athletics Centre where they trained together, under the guidance of coach Naseem Ahmed.

In the next few years, he blossomed as a young athlete making podium finishes both home and abroad.

Flourishing start

Within a year of training at Panchkula, Neeraj had set a junior national record by throwing 68.4 m in the Junior National Championship at Lucknow in 2012.

The next two years saw Chopra making a U-18 national record in Vijayawada with a throw of 76.50m, apart from winning gold medals in the Senior Open Nationals held in Kolkata and the Federation Cup in Hyderabad in 2014. He would also compete in the 2013 World Youth Championships.

In 2013, Neeraj entered his first international competition, the World Youth Championship in Ukraine.

He won his first international medal in 2014, a silver at the Youth Olympics Qualification in Bangkok.

In 2015, Chopra broke the previous world record in the junior category, throwing 81.04 meters in the All India Inter-University Athletics meet; this was his first throw of over 80 meters.

A turning point came in 2016 when Chopra was selected for the national training camp. He joined Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports, Patiala.

This provided him with better facilities, an improved diet, and a dedicated coach. According to him, training with national-level javelin throwers boosted his morale.

Success came at the 2016 South Asian Games, where he won gold with a new personal best with a throw of 82.23 meters.

This was a stepping stone, but his true breakthrough arrived later that year at the IAAF World U20 Championships.

There, he not only won gold but also shattered the world junior record, becoming the first Indian athlete ever to do so.

With a throw of 86.48 meters, he broke the old mark of 84.69 meters held by Latvian Zigismunds Sirmais by nearly two meters.

“When the spear left my hand on that second throw, I had a feeling that this was a special throw. I don’t think I expected it to go over 86 meters but since the last couple of months, I have worked hard on my fitness, my technique and it all paid off today,” Neeraj said after his world record-breaking performance.

Although his U20 record surpassed that of defending Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott, Neeraj failed to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics as the cut-off date had been 11 July, the week before the U20 championships.

Neeraj faced a setback after suffering from a groin injury in the final of the Zurich Diamond League. Owing to injury he fouled and skipped his last two attempts.

This forced him to miss the remainder of the season and re-evaluate his training approach.

He spent time in Germany, to train under Werner Daniels, whom he had briefly worked with before the 2017 World Championships.

Chopra's return in 2018 was triumphant. He claimed the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, with a season-best effort of 86.47 meters becoming the first Indian to do so in the javelin throw event.

In May 2018, he again broke the national record at the Doha Diamond League with a throw of 87.43 meters.

In August 2018, Chopra made his debut at the Asian Games and was even chosen as the Indian flag-bearer. He threw a distance of 88.06m to win the gold medal and bettered his own Indian national record.

This exceptional performance earned him the prestigious Arjuna Award, and the Indian Army, his employer, recognized his achievements with an out-of-turn promotion to Subedar.

Path to the Olympics

Neeraj's rise continued in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, postponed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the guidance of his German coach Uwe Hohn first and later biomechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz and physiotherapist Ishaan Marwaha, he refined his technique and entered the competition ready to make history.

And he didn’t disappoint.

On 4 August 2021, Neeraj made his debut at the Olympics, representing India at the Japan National Stadium.

With a throw of 87.58 meters, Chopra clinched the gold medal, becoming the first Indian athlete to win an Olympic gold in athletics. This victory not only brought India to its best-ever Olympic medal haul but also cemented Chopra's status as a national hero.

"I dedicate this win to Milkha Singh and PT Usha," he said, acknowledging the legendary Indian athletes who had paved the way for Indian athletics.

As a result of his performance in Tokyo, Neeraj became the second-ranked athlete internationally in the men's javelin throw and also became the second Indian to win an individual Olympic gold medal after Abhinav Bindra’s medal in 2008.

Chopra's dominance has continued ever since. He has broken national records multiple times, secured a historic silver medal at the World Athletics Championships in 2022, and defended his Asian Games title in 2023. Most recently, he secured another gold medal at the Paavo Nurmi Games.

The journey continues

Chopra's influence isn't limited to inspiring young athletes. His victory has ignited a revolution in javelin throw across India.

Javelin throw caught the imagination of the media and the success paved the way for the rise of javelin equipment at sporting goods stores.

Government initiatives are also underway to improve javelin throw facilities and training programs, with Chopra himself serving as a brand ambassador for several such efforts.

This newfound attention on javelin throwing is a welcome change for a sport that has previously received little fanfare in India.

Javelin throwers have historically trained under challenging circumstances, often lacking access to proper equipment and coaching.

While Neeraj's story showcases the exceptional talent that can emerge despite such limitations, it also highlights the need for more widespread support for the sport.

Neeraj's dedication to giving back extends beyond motivational speeches. He trains at the Indian Institute of Sports in Patiala, where he shares knowledge and techniques with younger throwers.

This mentorship is invaluable, as Chopra himself credits his own coach, Bartonietz, with playing a pivotal role in his success.

Looking ahead, Chopra's ambitions go beyond personal glory. He is a role model who paves the way for a future generation of Indian javelin throwers.

With his focus on improvement and his commitment to inspiring others, Neeraj is well on his way to achieving this goal in the Paris Olympics.

The future of Indian javelin throwing is undeniably bright, and Neeraj is at the forefront, leading the charge.

"My biggest goal is to improve my throw. I want to throw more. I want to throw far, yes of course I won gold in Tokyo but I want to win medals again and again," Neeraj concluded.

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