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Meet India’s only truly world-class athlete, and it’s not Virat Kohli

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Shekhar Gupta catches up with javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, 21, who won India its first Asian Games gold in the sport at the Jakarta games.

Here is the detailed transcript, edited for clarity:

Shekhar Gupta (SG): Hello and welcome to Walk the Talk. I am Shekhar Gupta and my guest today is not just a champion, but probably, in fact, most certainly, India’s only truly world-class athlete, and let me tell you, his name is not Virat Kohli. Because cricket is not a game everybody plays.

He is a top athlete in a discipline that is the mother of all sports and that is athletics. So unless you guessed already, we have Neeraj Chopra, javelin thrower.

With every throw, you improve your record. And in a span of two or two and a half years, you have improved your performance with eight metres.

Neeraj Chopra (NC): Yes, sir. In the year 2016, it was 82 and now it’s 88.

SG: To make our viewers understand, you covered a distance four times your height, that is six metres.

NC:  It looks like six metres is very less. Now that I have touched 88 metres, people ask me, when will I reach 90 metres? It is not an easy task, I will have to put in more hard work for that.

SG: You were at the mark of 82 metres before you started improving your performance with every championship.

NC: When I started my journey, the record stood at 80 metres, which was by Anil from Haryana, and then it rose to 82.23 metres with Haryana’s Rajender Singh’s performance at the National Games held in Kerala. From there, I took it forward in the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games.

SG: So, I think you’ll turn 21 now, right?

NC: Yes, sir. Now my aim is to reach 90 metres.

‘Javelin throw will gain popularity’

SG: You have the 6th best distance in the world currently, which is rare for an Indian athlete. We’ve had very few athletes like Vikas Gowda in discus throw, P.T. Usha, women’s relay team, Krishna Puniya, Milkha Singh and people like that.

NC: Javelin throw has never been a prominent sport. I think it will gain popularity with time.

SG: Now that we have a champion like you in the sport, people might start recognising the sport. Because I have been watching sports from ages now and I don’t remember our country having a javelin champion. There have been shot-putters, hammer throwers, discus throwers and decathletes also at one point of time, but not javelin throwers.

Is there a reason why javelin never grew in India?

NC: India was always strong in shot-put and discus throw but not in hammer and javelin throw. But now, with new teams coming in, this is the first time that India has four players who have crossed the 80-metre mark. If you look at the world rankings with top four players, India stands third after Germany and Czech Republic.

SG: If there is a javelin relay, looks like you’ll bring the medal now. So, all this while, our record did not cross 80 and we have four athletes who are above that mark. Why do you think this is happening?

NC: Things changed when Rajender Vasu broke the barriers and touched the 82 mark. Later, when I took it further in World Junior Chanpionships in Poland, we started believing that we can perform well at world-class level too. Apart from that we have new young boys coming in too.

SG: There was a notion that one cannot cross the 80-metre mark and. when one started breaking the record, many followed.

NC: Sir, the thing is, once the national competition improves, automatically things will start changing.

SG: So, is it a mental block or is it your arms?

NC: It is both, because physical strength and mental strength are equally important in sports. We need to balance both.

‘Noise made by public a distraction’

SG: So, what keeps running in your head before you throw the javelin? Do you think about the target or just pray? Because every second matters in this sport, everything depends on that second you make the move.

NC: For me, I just have to throw it, keeping in mind all the hard work and technique. Also, it’s important that we don’t get distracted by the public.

SG: Has it ever happened before that you’ve got distracted by the noise or by looking at your competitor?

NC: In fact, I get more motivated by looking at a competitor’s performance. But, the noise and the public have distracted me earlier and affected my performance.

SG: At the Asian Games, you made a new national record by touching 88.06 metres, but I heard your throw went a little towards left. If it was a perfect throw, it would have gone further.

NC: Yes, you’re right, sir. It went towards left and also the height of the throw was more. That caused a problem too. It would have been better with a flat throw.

SG: So what exactly is the technique for javelin throw? Of course you have enough strength in your arms, but what is the technique?

NC: Technique matters a lot in this sport. I have witnessed many powerful javelin throws that have failed due to bad technique. Every second and technique counts before we attack.

SG: Even you call it attack?

NC: Yes, sir. Just like kabaddi, we call it attack too. So, sir, there are many things we need to keep in mind. We need to follow the line and not making it a foul.

‘Fast bowling similar, but different’

SG: How much distance do you cover in your run?

NC: I run for 29-30 metres before I throw.

SG: Just like a fast bowler in cricket?

NC: Yes, sir.

SG: What is the difference between a javelin thrower and a fast bowler?

NC: They say it’s very similar but there is a small difference. There is a difference in the point of delivery.

SG: You have around 6-8 rivals in your sport. What is the difference between all of you?

NC: Everyone has their own technique. If one is powerful, another is quick.

SG: What is your technique?

NC: Sir, speed and throw are my strength.

SG: There is a very peculiar thing about javelin. I think this is the only sport where the current world record is far behind the earlier ones. Please make us understand because not many know about this.

NC: Yes, sir. My coach Uwe Hohn, who’s from Germany, is the only javelin thrower to date who has crossed the 100-metre mark. Earlier the grip of the javelin was very different from what it is now. It would cover more distance easily. Now, they have changed rules in the sport. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) thought it’s a little risky.

SG: Given the momentum it (javelin) travels, it might cause harm to the spectators as well.

NC: Absolutely. So, after him came Jan Železný from Czech Republic who touched 98.48.

SG: In the newer athletes you mean? So the weight of the javelin was not changed but the grip was. They’ve made it heavier in the front so that the centre of gravity shifts.

With you, people have started researching more about javelin and they’re wondering how it is that the new record is far lower than the earlier one.

What is your target? You’re just 21

NC: I try my best to improve with every performance. But I want to break the 90-metre barrier.

SG: So, if you reach the 90-metre mark, will you be on the top global rankings?

NC: Yes, sir. With that, it is going to be a gold medal.

Why Haryanvis don’t take pressure

SG: Are you under pressure during big tournaments?

NC: No, sir. I competed in the world tournaments but have given my best without taking any pressure.

SG: Usually, Haryanvi people don’t take pressure as such. They give pressure to others but are not under pressure themselves.

NC: No, sir. Why take pressure when we are working hard?

SG: What is your routine?

NC: It is mainly training for 7-8 hours from morning to evening. In between, there’s time for rest and refreshments. Some days, when I am out, I cook for myself. If free, I also hang out with friends.

SG: Any diet restrictions?

NC: During camps, we normally have what is served. When we cook for ourselves, we try our best to eat Indian food.

SG: How is the food in Indian camps? Is it healthy?

NC: Yes, sir. Now, slowly, it’s becoming better, in fact, much better.

SG: Do you take additional bulking supplements or do you eat non-vegetarian food?

NC: I am slowly eating non-vegetarian food because it gets very difficult in Europe, as most of the tournaments are held there. We cannot carry our own food and we cannot let it affect our performance. So we just eat what we get. Now, we’ve also gotten used to it.

SG: How do you take care of your shoulder? Most of these fast bowlers have shoulder injuries very often.

NC: There is fear of injury all the time. We just take suggestions from physiotherapists and our coach. They keep trying and helping us out with our resistance power as well.

SG: You will need a lot of thrust for that. So, while you’re running, what is your speed?

NC: Have never really checked that, but I try to attain maximum speed.

SG: What is the percentage of fouls?

NC: I make a lot of fouls and also fall a lot.

SG: Please don’t take that risk. You are a national athlete now.

SG: Show me a little of your angle of throw.

NC: (Demonstrates)

SG: Your team is doing really well now, at least at the Asian level. Tell me about your coach, Uwe Hohn, who is also the world’s best javelin thrower.

NC: He is a very quiet person, he doesn’t mingle with anyone apart from his athletes. He is someone who made a world record at a very young age. He was around 22-23 when he made the record but his career span was very small as he met with an injury. He would have gone miles ahead if that had not happened.

SG: Tell us about his way of training

NC: He focuses a lot on strength. Earlier, Garry Calvert was our coach and he focussed on fitness, like running and everything. But Uwe makes us do weight-lifting and stuff like that. His style is different from Garry’s.

SG: And what about the technique?

NC: So, he trains us in line with his style but though my style is different from his, he lets me follow mine.

SG: What is the difference?

NC: So, he tilts his body backwards before the throw and I swing my body before the throw. I believe, if I tilt backwards, it will affect my speed.

SG: Are you trained according to the wind directions? Does it change anything?

NC: They do train us, but I just continue to do what I do and give my 100 per cent.

SG: Doesn’t the coach tell you about all these things?

NC: He does, but once I am on the field, it slips from my mind.

Benefits of foreign coaching

SG: Did you develop your own technique?

NC: I follow what my senior Jai Veer taught me

SG: Have you fetched any benefits from foreign coaching?

NC: Yes, it helps a lot as they have been trained under world champions or are world champions themselves, like our coach. They come up with advanced techniques. The best part is, if we are outside the country, we get to work with world-level athletes.

SG: Usually, where are you trained?

NC: It usually happens at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala but most of the times, if we are out of India, it happens in Europe.

SG: How often do you meet Uwe Hohn in a year?

NC: He is usually with us during the training sessions in Patiala or Europe. By the way, I am associated with Uwe only this year.

SG: Why did you join the Army and what did it teach you?

NC: After I returned from the World Junior Championships, I did not get any offer apart from the Army. I also have a keen interest in the Army. There are many who have joined the Army in Haryana.

SG: Is any of your family member in the Army?

NC: No, sir. I am the first one. Now, I am getting a lot of help from the Army. They are doing a lot for sports.

That Pakistan moment at Asiad

SG: When you received a medal in Asian Games, you shared some healthy gestures with your Pakistani competitor. I appreciated it a lot, I also tweeted it out saying this is the sportsman spirit. Tell me a little about those moments.

NC: Sure, sir. I stood in the middle and shook hands with both the Pakistani and the Chinese players. But the photo with the Pakistani went viral because India-Pakistan is a thing.

SG: India has a thing with China too.

NC: That’s true. It’s important that we keep the sportsman spirit high. Winning and losing are part of the game.

SG: Now, I don’t feel like ending this discussion with you because it is very rare that we get a chance to interact with an athletic champion. What advice from your coach will you treasure?

NC: He keeps stressing on the fact that I need to break the world record, but he never mentions the numbers. So, I always keep that in mind.

SG: Does he scold you?

NC: No. I obey all his instructions.

SG: But when your javelin went towards the left during the Asian Games, did he not say anything?

NC: Not then, but he did scold me when I made a foul during the continental cup. But, later, he was like, don’t worry and things like that.

SG: Did he scold you in English or German?

NC: He did scold me in English… but I don’t quite remember what he said.

SG: Now that you are only 21, you have four to six years to break more records. Set a record which the upcoming generations will look up to. Something like what Milkha Singh did 50 years back.

NC: But in this Asian Games, we did very well.

SG: True. Especially this year, our Indian men runners have been very good.

NC: Women runners too.

SG: India has a tradition with women runners. Also, the issue with drugs has gone down.

NC: Yes, sir. These things happen when there are financial problems.

SG: Please take care of yourself Neeraj. You still have miles to go. It will be great if an Indian name joins the world record list.

NC: There is junior world record and I will try my best to get the senior world record too.

SG: All the best, Neeraj

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