For someone who ended a 74-year drought for independent India’s first athletic Olympic medal – with a gold, no less – Neeraj Chopra is refreshingly grounded. He is also absolutely clear of his focus, targets and the road ahead. What he isn’t is satisfied with his achievement in Tokyo.
“I have always talked about breaching the 90m mark and my focus remains that. It is a very important target because while winning a medal is one thing, managing a good distance is completely different. The Olympic gold is obviously very important, it was a dream for not just me but the entire nation. But the 90m mark is an important barrier. The best in the world have got it and it is important for me to personally consider myself a genuine world-level thrower,” Neeraj told a select group of journalists from his current training base in Chula Vista, San Diego.
To put an Olympic gold in perspective is a sign of the sporting maturity that Neeraj has always displayed, even as a youngster. But the 24-year old, who stood out for his composure and smooth rhythm on August 7, 2021 when he etched his name in Indian sports history books without a hint of it being his first-ever Olympic outing, admitted that while he understood the importance of the stage, he doesn’t let it affect his performance.
“I cannot say about others but personally, even at the Olympics I was very calm. Everyone says it is a big thing and I did feel the pressure of it but somewhere deep down, I was more focused on my own performance and performing according to my preparation without bothering about anything else. The 90m is a target but it is not an obsession. I will continue to train the way I have always done. It can be 89.99m or 90.1m also. Also, I am very different in and out of competition. Off track, even my best effort may not be good enough. But when I am competing, I am very different – my body and mind reacts totally differently and that I think helps me,” he explained.
Having spent the last three weeks working more on his fitness and weight than actual throwing, the 24-year old Olympic gold medalist has shed weight, got back into his rhythm and is enjoying “an athlete’s simple life” in the company of coach Klaus Bartoniez and physio Ishan. “It was very difficult initially because I had put on 12-13 kg weight and there had been no training at all. When I went on track, I tried to train like before but my body ached and everything took a lot of effort, both physically and mentally.
“I wake up, have breakfast and train for 2.5 hours, have lunch and rest, train again from 4.30 for about three hours, then have dinner and sleep. It’s great to return to normal training,” he smiled, admitting that post-Tokyo life in India was quite an experience. “The weather is good here and we can focus on training and put full effort into our programme. Back home it was very cold in Patiala plus it is wedding season at this time and everyone wants to invite you and you cannot decline,” he grinned.
He denied missing out on competition in the last five-months even as he rest of the world continued with sporting action. “I didn’t have Europe visa, I had missed training and also fell unwell. There was no point in hurrying back into action only for the sake of participating and also risk injury so we decided to concentrate on next year,” he explained.
Neeraj nevertheless realises he is more than just an athlete now back home. “I am the same person but suddenly there are too many new things around. But I made sure I was involved in everything I did. Yes, there were thoughts of when I might get back to normal training. But I also believe that people come to me out of love because I have won and it is my duty to be equally good with them. Respect is a two-way street, not just in sports but life in general,” he smiled.
He did, however, have a request to the general public and a suggestion to powers-that-be. “For the elite athletes, I do feel they need more competition, especially international ones. But it is not just the best athletes in the country. Even the upcoming ones should get more international exposure and experience, only then they will gain confidence to perform at the top level and get used to competing with the best in the world. At the same time, we have to understand that sometimes an athlete may have a poor performance but we need to support them at that time, that’s when they need even more motivation to get back. We need to appreciate the effort as much as the result,” he signed off.