Thomas Rohler interview: Rio 2016 gold medallist on Germany's secret to success in javelin, Neeraj Chopra's emergence and more

Rohler talks about a host of issues: the mental barriers in javelin throwing; how to be a 90m thrower; his own path from a small city called Jena to becoming an Olympic champion; the secret behind Germany’s success in javelin throw and India’s Neeraj Chopra.

Amit Kamath July 01, 2019 12:40:08 IST

With as many as six throwers capable of challenging for medals at the world stage currently, Germany’s heft in men’s javelin throwing is unparalleled.

Since the Rio Olympics in 2016 ― where Germany’s Thomas Rohler won gold ― each year, a German has thrown the spear the farthest in the competition (barring 2019, where Estonia’s Magnus Kirt is the only one to have breached the 90m mark).

Each year since 2016, at least three German throwers have lodged throws among the top 5 individual marks.

What's the secret behind this dominance by the European nation?

In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Rohler talks about a host of issues: the mental barriers in javelin throwing; how to be a 90m thrower; his own path from a small city called Jena to becoming an Olympic champion; the secret behind Germany’s success in javelin throw and India’s Neeraj Chopra.


Since 2018, there have been just four throwers who have breached the 90m mark in the men’s javelin event  Johannes Vetter, Andreas Hofmann, Magnus Kirt and you. Barring Kirt, the remaining throwers are Germans. Then there’s also Julian Weber, Bernhard Seifert and Lars Hamann, who are also throwing in the range of 85m. What is the secret behind Germany’s success in javelin?

A lot of people have tried to find out the secret behind our success. The secret is just to think very individually. It’s also a generation of throwers that must have been a little lucky. We’re all almost the same age, we all grew up attending the same youth competitions. We were always very competitive growing up and wanting to become something in the sport. These days, of course, it’s at a new level. Talking about throwing 90 metres is not talking about the talent throwing 82 metres.

Thomas Rohler of Germany wins the gold medal at Rio Olympics 2016. Reuters

There’s a lot of exchange between our (personal) coaches and between us. We’re a team, but at the same time, we’re training very individually. We all have training programs which are suited for our individual body types. Our training also varies on the conditions and the part of the season we are in, in terms of fitness ― we’re quite good at understanding this and communicating that with our coaches. Again, it’s a very individual path that leads to success.

You mentioned how the German throwers are all competitors, but also a team. How do you balance that?

It’s a mental challenge. We all understood that we can only get better at this level if we share information. You can just look at others and you can learn as well. But if you discuss with others, you will learn even more. You can try to copy someone and try to understand what the other guys are doing. You can learn what’s happening and whether it is happening deliberately. Of course, it takes a lot of respect and a lot of fair play between athletes and also coaches to even start that exchange. It’s been a long process. It’s a process every day. It’s not always easy to share when you’re fighting for the same medal. It’s a challenge, but it gets us forward. This is why we are a team.

You breached the 90m mark in a competition for the first time in 2016. Did you make any tweaks to your technique for that? What does it take for a thrower to go from an 88m thrower to a 90m one?

It happens. You have to be very patient. You have to build a good base. You have to maintain good stability in your throwing around these marks, be it 85m or 88m. A stable 86m will someday lead to an 88m throw. A stable 88m will someday lead to something bigger. There’s no major change that you have to make. It happens. You just need to stay relaxed. The more competitive it gets, the harder it gets. The hardest part of javelin is staying relaxed while still aiming for the biggest throws you can achieve.

You have said in an interview that someday you want to breach the 100m mark. The current world record is at 98.48m. What do you reckon that you need to change in your throwing to touch the 100m mark?

With that statement, I wanted to go past the mental barrier. People sometimes get caught up within mental barriers by thinking things like ‘this is going to be too hard’ or ‘this is impossible’. No, it’s not! We’re humans, we’re able to improve. I never said if it will be me or someone else who breaches the 100m mark. What it takes to do it, I don’t know. Javelin at the elite level is an experiment. It’s just a few people around the world who ever improve over 90m. So there’s no knowledge of how to improve on that level. So every individual who throws at this level is kind of a test. There’s no clue, there’s no textbook telling you how to do it. We all have 24 hours and we should use them as best as we can.

You come from a small city called Jena. Could you tell us a little bit about your own path to being an Olympic champion in javelin throw?

Thomas Rohler in action at the World Athletics Championships. Reuters

Jena has quite a history in javelin throwing. It is where the javelin world record was made (by Jan Železný in 1996 when he threw 98.48m, a record that still stands). But that’s the history of the city. That had no influence on me while growing up. I, in fact, grew up as a track-and-field athlete. I started at the age of seven. I then went to a sports school as a triple jumper and a high jumper. I was one of the smaller kids when I was young. Jumping made more sense for me back then. But I also loved throwing. I participated in jumping events to make the cut to stay in the sports school. But when I reached the age of 17 or 18, I switched to javelin and focused only on the sport. I was competing at the regional level when I was a jumper, but then in javelin I found a training group that fit my body. There was a lot of technical improvement from there on.

I think that was the main secret to my own success: that even when I was young I understood the throwing technique. Then I put in hours and hours just to get the rhythm and technique right. From there on, I made the national team in the U20 age group. I kept going and I was able to combine student life with my Olympic dreams. You won’t make a living just by being a javelin thrower if you don’t become the best in the world. So I also had to take care of being a good student as well. I also wanted to do that for my own CV.

What did you study?

I studied economic science for my bachelor's degree. I also did sports science at the bachelor level. These days I am working on my master's degree in marketing and strategy at the University of Jena.

What are your thoughts on India’s Neeraj Chopra?

I hope his elbow gets better fast. He has shown some good results at a young age. He definitely has the potential to throw very far. He’s got a very good left side. He’s got a nice and clean run-up rhythm. There’s everything in place to throw far.

Do you think that there are some aspects of his throwing that he needs to focus on?

It’s the same with every thrower. We’re all on the same path, to be the best version of our individual technique. It’s the same he needs to do, to understand his technique better. It’s hard to say from the outside what he needs to work on. If I say he needs to change this or work on that, it’ll seem correct from here, but maybe he won’t feel good while throwing with that advice. So the idea is to be very individual.

So there’s no advice you would like to give him?

Just keep going! He’s struggling with injury at the moment. We’ve all had these problems. Every top athlete around the world sometimes struggles. I’m sure he’s mentally fit to move on.

The writer is in Germany as part of the Robert Bosch Media Ambassadors Program.

Updated Date: July 01, 2019 23:42:26 IST

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