GOLD COAST: A cool breeze blew across the stadium. It had rained in the morning and despite a strong sun, there was a nip in the air. In the north-west side of Carrara Athletics Complex, Neeraj Chopra was standing to complete his fourth throw.
Javelin in hand, broad-shouldered with long hair, he resembled a medieval warrior. But his face was boyish and bereft of ferocity.
Neeraj was waiting for an opening between the leading pack and the tail in the women’s 5000m race. He ran in rhythmic steps, drew the spear sideways in a swift motion. After hurling it, he lost balance and tumbled. As he rolled on the ground, the spear gained momentum from the power generated by his strong limbs and swooshed through the air before piercing the ground. A huge applause died in the staccatos as the giant board showed 86.47 — Neeraj’s season’s best. He clapped and acknowledged the crowd.
The opening he had created between him and the rest couldn’t be breached. His name was now etched in gold among the country’s elites. Only Milkha Singh, Krishna Poonia, Vikas Gowda and the 2010 women’s 4x400m relay team had won gold in CWG track and field events. Neeraj’s is the first Indian gold in javelin.Neeraj’s victory lap took an eternity. He gave high fives and signed autographs, something that never happens in India. “This was tremendous. God gives us opportunities and we have to take them. Right?” he said.
What others call predicament, Neeraj calls vicissitudes in life — a learning curve, especially in India.
The transition from junior to senior is tricky. In developed sporting nations, professionals handle that shift, as the developments of mind and body are moulded seamlessly into the fabric of life to face the rigours of the senior professional world.
At 18, Neeraj won gold at the junior world championships in 2016. In 2017, he was struggling to find a good coach — a recurring Indian theme.
Two years on, his 86.48m is yet to be bettered. The 20-year-old had a tremendous working relationship with legendary coach Garry Calvert.
But in April last year he resigned because his demand for incentives was not met. China gleefully lapped him up.
Neeraj trained on his own for a while. At one point, he was struggling to even clear 83m. He was frustrated. He looked abroad for support and went to Germany to train under Daniel Werner, who Calvert recommended.
When AFI and SAI secured the services of Uwe Hohn, he refused to join initially and wanted to continue in Germany where he had rented an apartment, cooked and trained. The AFI had to coax him back. In February, he started training but following Werner’s regimen.
Hohn, realising the futility of trying to change Neeraj, allowed him for CWG. This gold might give Neeraj more confidence in Hohn.
Neeraj was the most relaxed athlete at the Village. He was chilling with friends, interacting with fans. “I was confident. And sometimes it’s good to unwind. I have been training and sleeping well.”
A believer in destiny, Neeraj never thought he would be competing at the CWG when he took up the spear.
“First it’d felt good to win at district and state levels... Then, I went to the national and junior international tournaments. My focus has always been on training.
“My parents did whatever they could with their modest earning,” he said. Even after gold he recollects the days when he travelled over 16kms everyday to reach Patiala for training.
“There was a senior coach called Jaiveer (Monu). I started my sporting life with him,” said the athlete, who is now supported financially by JSW, the AFI, SAI, Nike and Gatorade.With the first throw on Saturday, Neeraj touched 85.50m, which secured the medal.
“I was striving for my personal best. To get even that 1, I gave that extra effort.” Success at such a young age has raised the bar of expectations. With Olympics two years away, just hope he clears that personal best and competes against the best.