Potchefstroom, a leafy university town in the north-west of South Africa will be Neeraj Chopra's training base for the next three months. With an eye on the Tokyo Olympics, the javelin star is expected to bolster his coaching staff with the addition of Dr Klaus Bartonietz, a renowned bio-mechanist from Germany. His current coach Uwe Hohn under whom Neeraj won the gold medals at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games will continue to head his coaching program. Potchefstroom is a popular training hub for top javelin throwers from all over the world who escape the bitter cold in Europe to converge in this city in the southern hemisphere which enjoys a mild summer from January to March. The likes of former world and Olympic champion Jan Zelezny had made it their training base, a practice followed by the current world champion Johannes Vetter.
"2018 has been a dream year and I am within touching distance of the 90m mark. This means I am very much in the reckoning for an Olympic medal," says Neeraj in an interview with Firstpost. Neeraj achieved his personal best of 88. 06 metres at the Asian Games in Jakarta. Only five other athletes have registered better throws than Neeraj this year with Vetter leading the chart with an effort of 92.70 metres.
"There is not much difference between the top throws this season and my current personal best. On my good day, I can beat the best throwers in the world. I do not want to touch 90 metres in just one odd tournament and struggle with 85 metres in other five meets. I would prefer to have 88 metres in all the five meets. So in my training, I am focussing to maintain consistency," adds Neeraj currently training in Patiala before flying out to South Africa. "I really trained hard in 2018 because Commonwealth Games and Asian Games were my targets for a long time. It also helped that I was mostly injury-free throughout the year. In 2019, I have set my sights on the World Championship to be held in Doha in September-October. I will also be taking part in the Diamond League meets."
As the year draws towards the close, the 20-year-old is one of the popular choices as the Indian sportsperson of 2018. Starved of heroes in the athletics arena, Neeraj's success story on the big stage has made him an instant celebrity. Adding to the allure has been his good looks, earthy personality and an inspiring story of emerging from a non-descript village in Haryana.
Followed by Bollywood stars and political leaders on social media, Neeraj is one of the most recognisable faces in Indian sports, regularly adorning the cover pages of magazines. "Recognition by Bollywood stars and politicians is satisfying but what gives me the real high is to see people following the sport of javelin so closely because of me. People had no idea about the sport and I am proud that I have managed to make it popular with my success.
"In the last few months, I have met many celebrities ranging from actors to top cricketers but I have never been star struck. To me, my biggest hero continues to be my first javelin coach Jaiveer who inspired me to take the sport."
In his native village of Khandra near Panipat in Haryana, Neeraj's achievements have also brought about a change. "No one knew about this place a few years ago but today if you google Khandra, the name pops up instantly as Neeraj Chopra's village. His achievements have created a unique bond among the villagers. Every time Neeraj takes part in an international event which is televised, the entire population of over three thousand people watch the action together. It is as if he does not belong to just one family but to the entire village. He has managed to blur so many divides among the villagers," asserts Bhim Chopra, uncle of Neeraj. "If you ask us to compare which victory of his was most satisfying for us between his under-20 world championship triumph, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold, I would rate the Asian Games on top. This was because Neeraj was the flag bearer of the Indian contingent at this meet and there was pressure on him to perform."
"His busy training regimen has meant Neeraj has managed to spend just one full day with his parents and family in the last couple of months in Khandra. He will once again be away for the next three months in South Africa. It is a sacrifice that we as a family will have to make for realising his Olympic dreams." Neeraj belongs to a joint family of 17 members and to make up for his physical absence, the family elders have formed a WhatsApp group to stay connected with him. "The group is called Aapna Shakti Apna Parivar and Neeraj's father was the last to join the group after he got his first smartphone so that he could stay in touch with his son," reveals Bhim.
Fame and adulation can be tough to handle for most twenty-year-olds but his family is happy that Neeraj has managed to shrug off the distractions and is targeting an Olympic medal with monk-like dedication.