Javelin coach Naseem Ahmad remembers the day in 2011 when a chubby 13-year-old named Neeraj Chopra came to the Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex in Panchkula. The teenager travelled over four hours from his native, Khandra village, near Panipat, to enquire about the process of getting admission at the sports academy that had one of the only two synthetic tracks available in Haryana at the time.
That was a big step for the youngster to take in his budding athletics career. An even bigger one, the biggest yet, came on Saturday, when he launched a javelin 87.58 metres at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium to become only the second individual gold medallist at the Olympics from the country.
It’s an achievement that has created memories, and one that has brought back quite a few for Ahmad.
“I still remember how Neeraj would watch his seniors training at the nursery,” recalls an emotional Ahmad.
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“He’d sit with his notebook and take tips from them. He would never shy away from training and would always set targets of winning each day’s round with the group. To see him win the gold medal today on the biggest stage is the greatest joy for us. And I am sure he will be spending time with the javelin throwers from the other countries just like he did here with his seniors and friends post training or competition.” shares an emotional Ahmad.
Chopra first learnt the art of javelin throwing from coach Jaiveer Singh in Panipat. In Panchkula he trained from 2011 till early 2016. But it wasn’t just the field event Ahmad would make him train for. At the stadium near the foothills of the Shivalik Range, Chopra’s morning sessions would be followed by him training with the long-distance runners, and then the javelin event again in the evening.
Staying at the hostel also meant that the 23-year-old would remain under Ahmad’s strict watch. But he doesn’t recall Chopra going astray – most of the youngster’s free time was spent reading books about his event, or pestering seniors to show him videos of old javelin events from Olympics past. At the same time, he started to perfect his craft in practice as well.
“His basics were always strong since he trained with a lot of seniors since when he was in Panipat. But since javelin throw requires a lot of stamina and strength, we first made an athletics training programme for him and it meant that he would also train with long-distance runners at the stadium,” the coach explains.
“Some months later, we would spend time on improving his technique. As he made throws with cross legs and had a wide last stride, it gave him the required momentum for the final jerk for smooth throws. Starting from throwing with two strides to three strides and five strides, we would progress to a full run-up each day and it helped him master the landing technique too. While he now falls after his throw in competitions, it was never the case in training here.”
Staying at the hostel in Panchkula with him were also a few friends who used to train with him in Panipat. They weren’t bereft of Chopra’s constant questioning about the sport either. Narender Ranbir, a Paralympian from London 2012 and Rio 2016, and silver medallist at the 2014 Para Asian Games, shared a room with Chopra when they were in Panipat.
“Neeraj would always come to us for advice about various javelin techniques,” recalls the 31-year-old.
“We all pooled in money and bought three local-made Crown javelins that the whole group trained with. At the time Neeraj threw around 25-30m. But once we moved to Panchkula, we borrowed foreign-made javelins from the seniors.
“Neeraj was also cooked a vegetable pulao dish that would make five-star chefs jealous. Wohi banane ko bolenge once he comes back with his gold medal (we’ll tell him to make us that once he comes back with the gold medal.”
In 2011, Chopra set a new junior national record of 68.40m in the junior nationals in Lucknow. In the senior category, Chopra would first cross the 70m mark in 2014 with a throw of 70.19m before he crossed the 80m mark with a throw of 81.04m, a world junior record, in the All India Inter-University Athletics Meet in 2015. The next year he threw 82.23m at the South Asian Games (SAFF) in Guwahati. But a month after the qualification process ended for the Rio Olympics, Chopra went on to throw 86.48m for a new junior world record in the IAAF World U-20 Athletics Championship at Poland.
The last five years have seen Chopra training under various coaches at the national camp. He’d also keep breaking the records – often his own – at regular intervals. Ahmad remembers the youngster writing about each throw in his notebook.
“Initially when he came here, he was touching the 55m mark. He would be throwing close to 50 throws three days a week, apart from 18-20 throws in a simulated competition with seniors and his age-group throwers twice a week,” the coach adds.
“Every time he crossed 60m, 70m, 80m, he would always write it down. Today he wrote his name in the history books, what more can I say.”
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