Neeraj Chopra has seen it all, the dizzying heights of success and the frustrating lean patch. From an overnight superstar hyped as the next big thing in Indian athletics to being rudely dismissed as yet another youngster who faded away at the senior level.
So, as India celebrated his gold medal at the 21st Commonwealth Games on Saturday, the javelin thrower from Haryana was relieved to have lived up to the expectations.
Indian athletics has remained devoid of superstars since PT Usha's exit. So Neeraj's exploits at the Under-20 World Championship in 2016 captured the imagination of the nation. He was an 18-year-old red-hot sensation, becoming the first Indian to win a world championship and have a world record to his name in track and field.
It was a fairytale start, but as he made the transition to the senior level, he had no eye-popping performances at the international stage. Saturday's win proved the youngster was back on track. "There is always the pressure to perform because medal hopes were very high. I was feeling the weight of expectations. At the end of the day, it is your performance on the day that matters, and past records have no bearing," said Neeraj.
"I did not take anything for granted though I knew that if I repeated my season's best throw, I would finish at the top," added India's lone track and field gold medallist in this year's Commonwealth Games.
Neeraj, who had a best throw of 86.47m, said, "I always believe that past reputation do not count. For example, the 2015 world champion and Olympic silver medallist Julius Yego failed to even make the final."
"My three-month stint in Offenburg under coach Werner Daniels was very effective as I worked a lot on my technique," he said.
For a sport that depends a lot on technique, Neeraj's progress has been hindered by lack of professional coaches. He forged a successful association with Garry Calvert, but the Australian did not complete his tenure, leaving Neeraj in the lurch just before a couple of important international meets.
Neeraj is currently coached by Uwe Hohn, one of the most reputed javelin coaches, who once held the world record and is reputed to be the only javelin thrower with the unique distinction of registering a throw beyond the 100 metre mark. "We have put together a strength and conditioning team to focus on Neeraj," says Mustafa Ghouse, CEO of JSW Sports which has been supporting Neeraj.
Ghouse, a former Davis Cup player and Asian Games medallist, calls Neeraj a God-gifted athlete. "He is naturally talented and his world revolves around javelin. He is obsessed with the sport," added Ghouse.
Neeraj's initiation into javelin happened by chance when he was coaxed by his relatives to take up a sport as he was overweight. The 13-year-old started going to the SAI Centre in Panipat where he fell in love with javelin. From a pastime it soon became a passion. While other teenagers were hooked to the internet or watching Bollywood films, Neeraj spent hours on YouTube watching javelin throws. If his friends idolised Salman Khan and Kareena Kapoor, his world revolved around Jan Zelezny, the three-time Olympic gold medallist and world record holder in javelin.
Serious about taking up the sport more seriously, Neeraj then shifted to the SAI Sports Hostel at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Panchkula. He put in long hours perfecting the skills to be a professional javelin thrower. He was soon creating ripples in the domestic circuit, even in senior events, winning gold medals in the Open Nationals and the Federation Cup.
And then came the game-changer when he hurled the spear to a distance of 86.48 metres at Bydgoszcz, Poland, in the Under-20 World Championship.
However, replicating the success at the senior level has been tough. In the 2017 World Championship, Neeraj, tipped to be one of India's brightest hopes, failed to make the final, falling short of the 83m mark, the automatic qualification mark. With one eye towards the Olympics in 2020, Neeraj is gunning to consistently hit the 88m mark and peak at 90-92 by the end of 2019 to bolster his medal hopes.
"The Commonwealth Games gold has been a big motivation and this is a big confidence booster," he said.
The youngster from Panipat will have very little time to celebrate his success in Gold Coast and would soon start training for the Diamond League meets next month to be held in Doha and Eugene, USA.
Updated Date: Apr 15, 2018 09:57:05 IST