His previous coach, Garry Calvert has called him a “once-in-a-generation talent.” Anju Bobby George, former Indian bronze medallist at the World Championships said “he is the most promising young Indian athlete today,” whose “best performances are yet to come.” It is not often that a young Indian track and field athlete enjoys such a ringing endorsement, but then it is also not often that someone like Neeraj Chopra comes along.
20-year old Chopra has just won his latest Gold medal, at the Sotteville Athletics meet in France. His throw of 85.17m was enough to see him finish above the likes of 25-year old Keshorn Walcott, the 2012 London Olympics Gold medalist. Javelin throwers tend to get better with age, far into their 20s and early 30s. It is here then, that Chopra’s talent becomes abundantly clear when you compare the distances of his throws to what elite athletes were registering at the age of 20.
2016 Rio Olympics Gold medalist Thomas Rohler of Germany, who threw a distance of 90.30m to clinch the medal had a best throw of 80.79m at 20. Kenyan athlete Julius Yego, the Olympic silver medalist and 2015 world champion was not throwing beyond 75.44m when he was Chopra’s age. When we speak in relatives and not absolutes, the Indian is already far ahead of the two on paper.
Chopra comes from a village near Panipat called Khandra. He told JSW Sports (who also represent and support him) before the 2018 Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast that at the age of 15, he could have never imagined himself representing the country at various events around the world.
“When I started out, being a part of the district event was a massive thing for me and my family,” he recalled. “All the hard work that I put in when I was young has paid off. When I look back, I have so many people to thank and doing well in the coming weeks would be would be one way to repay them.”
One of the first names on the list of people Chopra would thank is Garry Calvert, the Australian coach who was mentoring Chopra when he first broke on to the international Javelin scene. In 2016, he won gold at the World Junior Championships with a throw of 86.48m, almost six metres more than second placed Johan Grobler of South Africa to break the junior world record. It was the first gold medal by an Indian in a field event at any World championships.
However, coach Calvert resigned in April 2017 and for five months, Chopra had to train alone. He kept going from strength to strength though, and won the gold at the Asian Athletics Champions in Bhubaneshwar with a throw of 85.23m. At the time, it was the best ever throw recorded on Indian soil. With German Javelin legend Uwe Hohn (the only athlete in history to throw a Javelin 100m or more) being roped in by the Athletics Federation of India a month later in September to train Chopra, the young Indian only kept improving.
In March 2018, Chopra broke his own national record set in Bhubaneshwar when he won gold once again at the Federation Cup, throwing 85.94m. At this point, the Commonwealth Games were one month away, and the young athlete knew that he had to step up his training to participate in what was going to be the biggest international event in his young career. Offenberg, the Javelin capital of the world, beckoned.
In Germany, with state of the art training facilities available, the exposure was invaluable. Speaking about his time over there ahead of the Commonwealth Games, Chopra had said, “Germany was a big move because I learned quite a few things. To train alongside Johannes Vetter (2017 world champion and German record holder) and learn new techniques and exercises was a major step ahead of the Commonwealth Games.”
On April 14, it all came together. Chopra became the fourth ever Indian to win a gold medal in a track event at the Commonwealth Games, throwing 86.47m. While he missed his personal best by a mere centimetre, he catapulted into national limelight. The Doha Diamond League followed, where despite finishing fourth, he fell just four centimetres short of bettering his Commonwealth Games throw by a full metre.
With Chopra making constant strides, all eyes are now on him ahead of the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang where he will lead the charge for the Indian contingent in the Javelin event. The next step is to break into the 90-metre club, but it won’t be a calamity if he can’t get there at the Asiad. Chopra has set himself a target of reaching the mark by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And in ‘relative’ terms, he’s well on his way to getting there.