Neeraj Chopra got a lift from German Johannes Vetter a few weeks ago on the way to the airport in Finland.
“My English is not strong but we spoke for some time about our country, our background and about our early years,” said Neeraj, recalling the drive with the German, the world's best javelin thrower this year. That incident, which brought the two closer, probably helped Neeraj realise that the German was just another competitor and beatable.
Growing up at Khandra village, near Panipet, Neeraj was an overweight and restless kid most of the time. Since they wanted to keep him occupied, his dad, a farmer, took him to the Shivaji stadium.
Neeraj had tried other sports too. He was not too fond of running, but when he saw a few heavy men throwing the javelin, he wanted to try it too. When he realised that he was good at it, he started loving it more.
“He is a natural when it comes to javelin,” said Australian Gary Calvert, who coached him to the under-20 gold at the 2016 Worlds in Poland.
Many, including Calvert and Volker Herrmann, who was the AFI's High Performance Director before quitting in November last year, felt that Neeraj would start winning medals from the 2024 Paris Olympics. He has proved them right by clinching a medal and proved them wrong by doing it four years early!
A plump kid took to athletics to lose weight and ended up being India's first track-and-field Olympic gold-medallist.
Sounds like a fairytale? That's Neeraj Chopra's life actually, all of 23 and a superstar, or dare one say a messiah, that Indian athletics had been waiting for over a century.
On Saturday, with his javelin in hand, Chopra was nothing short of a rockstar at Tokyo's Olympic stadium, which should have been full to capacity to watch his genius unfold but had just a handful officials and coaches to cheer him on thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He got everyone to cheer for him like he always does and didn't even need to throw a personal best of 88.07m. The gold was sealed with the 87.58m throw, which was just his second of the final round.
He has been a consistent performer since bursting into spotlight with a historic gold in the junior world championships in 2016 with an Under-20 world record of 86.48m which still stands.
His other achievements include gold medals in the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, besides the top finish in the 2017 Asian Championships. He is also a 2018 Arjuna Awardee.
His infectious smile doesn't give it away but Chopra has had his brush with low phases too. He underwent an arthroscopic surgery on the elbow of his right throwing arm in 2019 which kept him out of action for nearly a year but he came back stronger.
In pursuit of excellence, it was a roller-coaster ride for the tall, sprightly and humble athlete after being pulled into the sport by senior javelin thrower Jaiveer Choudhary from a nearby village in 2011.
Chopra was game to it and after a few months, in search of better facilities, he shifted to the Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Panchkula. By the end of 2012, he had become the U-16 national champion.
At this point came the financial issues as Chopra needed accomodation, better equipment, a kit and better diet to go up the next level.
It was a tough decision for the joint family which owns less than 10 acres of land. But they pulled through and by 2015, Chopra had joined the national camp.
"We are farmers, nobody in the family has a government job and my family has been supporting me with difficulty. But it is a sort of relief now that I am able to support my family financially besides continuing with my training," Chopra had told PTI in an interview after he was made a Junior Commission Officer in the Indian Army in 2017.
He is now a Naib Subedar.
"A medal in Tokyo Olympics is my target, it's the ultimate for an athlete. I am still young and my best is yet to come," he had said then.
In 2013, he took part in the World Youth Championships in Ukraine but returned without any medal. Next year, he won a silver in the Youth Olympics Qualification in Bangkok, his first international medal.
Chopra's first medal in a national senior championship came in July 2015 during the Inter-State event in Chennai with a throw of 77.33m. A few months later, he won gold in the National Open Championships in Kolkata.
The year 2016 was a breakthrough one for Chopra. After crossing the 80m mark at the fag end of 2015, Chopra won the South Asian Games in Guwahati in February 2016 with a throw of 82.23m.
A few months later, under the guidance of late Australian coach Gary Calvert, Chopra created history during the world junior championships and announced the arrival of a truly world-class javelin thrower.
There is still a wall-hanging in the drawing room of Chopra's ancestral home which features an oft-repeated motivational quote - "A single idea can light up your life." The Chopra family's single idea to let him pursue javelin throw on Saturday lit up the country in its golden glow.