The journey of an Olympic gold medallist is long and winding. And when finally that person has that heavy shinning metal hanging from his or her neck, that moment is surreal. On August 7, a 23-year-old from Haryana lived those precious moments.
A star was born on December 24, 1997, in the Khandra village of Panipat, Haryana. But a glance at a 12-year-old Neeraj wouldn't have given away the fact that the mischievous little boy would one day bring India's first-ever gold medal in athletics. Simply because he was overweight, weighing around 90 kilos.
Concerned over his weight, his family enrolled him in a gymnasium, for which he had to cycle 24 kilometres to Madlauda. He showed his reluctance to work out in the gym, but his family refused to stop his gym sessions. Instead, they sent him to another gym in Panipat. That changed everything.
A Sneak Peek Into The SAI centre
His workout ended at six in the evening, and he would frequent the nearby Panipat Sports Authority of India centre while waiting for his uncle to pick him up. This is where he met a javelin thrower named Jaiveer Singh's attention because he could throw a javelin 40 metres away without any practice. Neeraj started training under him. After training a year under Jaiveer, 13-year-old Neeraj moved to Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex in Panchkula, one of Haryana's two facilities with a synthetic runway.
There he started training under coach Naseem Ahmed. He was an attentive student who used to record tips from experienced athletes in his notebook. After winning multiple national and international tournaments at the youth level, Neeraj left Panchkula in early 2016.
A Sports Prodigy
Neeraj Chopra came under the spotlight in 2016 and became a household name overnight. Back then, the 18-year-old Neeraj threw the 800-gram spear at the 2016 IAAF World U20 Championships in Poland. The spear landed 86.48m away in his second attempt, and with it, Neeraj clinched India's first-ever gold medal at a world-level competition, as reported by The Times of India. The throw also broke the U20 world record. 2016 proved to be a fruitful year for him. He also bagged gold in the South Asian Championship with a throw of 82.23m, equalling the national record.
Interestingly, in 2016 he was also inducted into the Indian Army under sports quota at the rank of Naib Subedar, with his parent unit being 4 Rajputana Rifles. The 2010 Commonwealth Games bronze-medallist Subedar Kashinath Naik trained him after being selected Mission Olympics Wing and the Army Sports Institute of Pune. Chopra was later promoted to the rank of Subedar.
In 2017, Neeraj Chopra bagged another gold medal with an 85.23m throw at the Asian Athletic Championships. A year later, at the Commonwealth Games, he won yet another gold medal with the season-best throw of 86.57m, cementing his name among the elite list of athletes who have won gold in their CWG debuts.
The same year, at the Asian Games in Jakarta, Chopra was privileged to be India's flag bearer. Chopra not only won the gold at the Asian Games 2018, but he also established a national record of 88.06m. 2018 was a gold-laden year for the athlete as he also clinched the winner's medal at the Sotteville Athletics Meet in France and the Savo Games in Finland.
The First Setback
However, after a disappointing sixth-place finish in the IAAF Continental Cup, Neeraj faced an unexpected technical snag for which his throw needed to be rectified. But a significant shoulder injury in 2019 threw all his plans out of the window. He had to undergo surgery and missed out 2019 World Athletics Championship, which was an opportunity for him to seal his Olympic berth.
The injury kept him out for six months, and he missed the entire season that year. After the hiatus, Neeraj parted ways with his coach Uwe Hohn and started training under German bio-mechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz.
On returning from the injury, the Indian javelin thrower threw 87.86m at his first competition, which guaranteed him a ticket to Tokyo. Like any other athlete in the country, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted Chopra's Olympic preparation and stopped him from participating in tournaments.
However, Neeraj's best-ever throw came earlier this year in March at the third leg of the Indian Grand Prix in Patiala. He hurled an 88.07m, setting yet another national record. Even though there was a lack of preparation, Neeraj Chopra was ready for his maiden Olympics.
Acing The Javelin Throw: India's Golden Boy
Finally, on August 4, when the start javelin thrower took just 12 seconds to qualify for the final, Indians started to dream.
In the finals, on August 7, Neeraj, in his second attempt, took 20 strides, hurled the spear into the air, groaned, turned back and stretched his hands to celebrate even before the javelin had landed. He knew what he had done. He knew he had surpassed everything that he had achieved until that moment. He knew India was getting its first Olympic gold medal in athletics.