At the far corner of the athletics ground, in the only patch of shade, at the SAI centre in Sonepat, stood a group of 20 youngsters from Singhaoli Ahir village in Baghpat. They were here to participate in the national javelin throw open championships. It’s Athletics Federation of India’s (AFI) talent hunt to spot the next Neeraj Chopra, India’s big track and field hope.
Most of the 137 boys and girls who have turned for this audition of sorts have never stepped on a synthetic track. Take the boys from Baghpat, they train on a piece of farmland that was converted into a makeshift throwing arena by their coach.
Aashish Chaudhary, 19, says he is here to catch the eye of national head coach Uwe Hohn and biomechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz. They have heard of Hohn, the 56-year-old who trains Chopra but had never seen him. The two Germans are surprised as the youngsters request for selfies with them.
"If I can impress the coach, it would pave the way for better training facilities and diet. But the competition is bound to be tough," said Chaudhary, who knows that a good outing can change his life. The throwers begin their run-ups from beside a huge poster of Chopra, whose gold at the Under-20 world championships has made thousands of youngsters reach for a spear.
AFI’s deputy national chief coach Radhakrishnan Nair says the boom is a because of Chopra’s feats – Asian and Commonwealth golds. "Chopra has not only made the sport popular but has raised the quality of the competition too. Currently, we have five senior throwers in the national camp who can cross 80 metres. Even the junior throwers are crossing 75-plus. In the Federation Cup in Patiala, there were over 35 (40) who qualified for the men’s javelin throw," he says.
The slots for the national camp are limited – nine men and two women are part of the current senior elite group – so almost everyone knows in their heart of hearts that they won’t make the cut. Yet, athletes are going the extra mile to make sure nothing is left to chance on competition day.
Chaudhary rode his bike for 40 kilometres from Baghpath to a stadium with a synthetic track in Rathdhana, near Sonepat, to get used to the surface. He made the trip twice in the past two weeks. "I train on a grass track. When one is throwing in front of the national coach and that too the only man to throw over 100 metres, there can be no excuses. You get only one day to prove yourself. Nobody wants to make a mistake," he said.
Anand Singh, 18, from Chhapra in Bihar, is waiting for his big break at the open championships. He is a millennial who has embraced technology and used it wisely to fine-tune his technique. "I have connected with a Peru-based coach via Facebook and forwarded him my videos. He gives me feedback and I hope to follow what he has told me," he said.
The sport’s footprint is expanding to states which have not been traditional powerhouses. Gujarat won two medals on the first day, a gold in the girls’ under-16 and a silver in the girls’ under-18. The respective winners Dhruvi Parmar and Amisha Solanki are from a batch of just three javelin throwers training at the high performance centre in Nadiad. "Hopefully, their medals will inspire more girls from the state to take up throwing events," coach Dharmendra Parmar said.
For Hohn, it would be a bonus to unearth talent in the girls’ section. "In women, we have almost nobody (in the talent pool). There is Annu (Rani), but behind her there is a big gap," Hohn said.
The German will spend two days at Sonepat hoping to identify young throwers who have the potential to boost the national pool. "We like to see if there are any talents in age groups. So if we (India) have to improve for the future, we need to find a way to spot the best talent and help them improve," Hohn said.
Yadav breaches national mark
Not everyone who has turned up is raw. Rohit Yadav, a silver medallist at the 2017 Asian Youth Championships, wants to make up for lost time after losing a year following a ban for failing a dope test. In the preliminary round of the Under-18 boys’ category, he topped with a national record of 81.75 metres. "I hope to do better in the final on Tuesday. I am making a comeback, so every competition is important for me. If I can get a call for the national camp, it will be a big boost," Yadav said.
Coaches too have put their best foot forward. Krishna Kumar Paliwal trains throwers at the Degree College Ground in Modinagar, Ghaziabad. He has his plate full as half a dozen of his wards are here. "Earlier, I would have four or five trainees. Now there are at least 15 at any given time. Annu Rani is from Bahadurgarh and she is a known name. Yet after Chopra came on the scene, the interest in the sport has increased immensely," Paliwal said.