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'Eternal record holder' Uwe Hohn wants Indians to stay injury free

Davinder Kang (right) on his coach Uwe Hohn (left) - "He is like a god for us" ESPN

Training was optional for the Indian javelin throw team on Saturday evening. Yet, braving a sore shoulder and the grey smog hugging the athletic track at the National Institute of Sport in Patiala, Davinder Kang sprints down before flinging the spear nearly out of sight into the hazy distance. He would then look for approval towards the gigantic German towering over him.

"Arm is too low," Uwe Hohn would say bluntly.

Kang nods and trudges back to the starting mark to correct the error. He would make 54 exhausting throws in the evening before Hohn finally flashes a thumbs-up.

Largely self-trained, Kang is among India's premier javelin throwers, regularly hurling the 700gm projectile past the 80m benchmark for a world-class athlete. He won bronze at the Asian Championships in July and then became the first Indian javelin thrower to qualify for the finals of the World Championships in London a month later.

All his life, Kang has kept his elbow low to the ground - the end of the javelin almost scraping the track - in the moment before he launches the projectile. A low arm increases the whiplash that propels the javelin. In the absence of shoulder flexibility, it also places a heavy strain on the tendons of the elbow -- a trade-off for greater distance on throws. Yet, when Hohn mentions that his throwing arm is too low or that his training methods are wrong, Kang stops and listens.

"Uwe Hohn sakshath bhagwan hai hamare liye (Uwe Hohn is like god for us). When god tells you to do something, you don't ask why," he says.

Kang's adoration for the 55-year-old from Neuruppin, Germany - who took charge as chief coach of the Indian javelin throwers last month - can be explained through a YouTube clip he has watched hundreds of times.

The grainy footage is from the 1984 Olympic Day of Athletics celebrations in East Berlin. Dressed in a blue jumper, the 6 foot 6 inch Hohn lopes into the frame, before stopping. He pivots on his left foot and twists his torso transferring all the momentum to the spear. It soars off into the distance - 'just inside the stadium' as the commentator explains - before spiking into the turf worryingly close to the spectators on the other side of the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark. The throw would be recorded at 104.80m.

The mark - the only time the javelin has been hurled over a hundred meters - was a world record, one never likely to be broken. While proposals had been made to redesign the javelin in order to increase the frequency with which it landed nose first into the ground, Hohn's mark aggravated safety concerns as well. In 1986, the javelin was redesigned moving the centre of gravity a few centimetres closer to the tip. No subsequent throw has come within six metres of Hohn's effort.

"How can you compare yourself to him? Even on my best day, my throws will be 20 metres less than what he has thrown," says Kang.

But Hohn, whose previous assignment as China coach saw him work with 2014 Asian Games champion Zhao Qinggang, doesn't want Indian athletes to try and emulate his career.

"You don't need to be like me to be a successful athlete. The most important priority should be to remain injury free. If you are able to train for long periods of time, you can realise your potential. It is most important to first protect every weak part of the body. Short-term results are not the most important thing for an athlete," Hohn says.

Despite his monster throw and the cult status that goes with it, Hohn doesn't have a single medal at the World Championships or Olympics. While erstwhile East Germany's boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics meant Hohn missed out on the biggest stage at the peak of his powers, recurring injuries cut his athletics career short. His senior career lasted all of four years, ending in 1986 at 24.

Hohn underwent his first back surgery in 1986. The procedure was botched and he would be operated upon three times further. To this day, Hohn has a pronounced limp in his left foot after surgeons extracted a length of nerve tissue to transplant in his back.

"Yes I feel regret about those times," he says. "One is that I didn't grow up in this generation. I didn't know that much about the body and about training and about protection and physiotherapy. Also in my time, my team didn't have the knowledge about how to rest. Or that I had to work much harder on my core. I over-trained and I hurt myself. The fact that I too had injuries is perhaps the reason, I too think more about this."

When Hohn first began to coach him, former Commonwealth champion Jarod Bannister had a world leading time of 89.02m in 2008. Yet, the push for a medal at the Olympics was derailed by health problems. "Jarod had ankle problems, back problems, elbow problems. In the preparation for Beijing, we could do no sprint or jumps training because his ankle was f****," Hohn recalls.

Hohn says he spotted similar weakness among Indian athletes - especially Neeraj Chopra, the Indian record holder, an Asian gold medalist and the first Indian to win a gold medal at the Junior World Championships in 2016.

Self-taught before training under Australian Gary Calvert last year, Chopra strained his back earlier this year and then suffered a groin injury at the Zurich Diamond League in August. Hohn believes the injuries will begin to pile up on the 19-year old.

"I think Neeraj is probably carrying weaknesses from before. It might be an issue of core strength. Neeraj's technique makes him susceptible to injury. He has a low throwing arm for example. The entire of last year, I saw him holding his arm after throws," says Hohn.

Yet to be appointed coach back then, Hohn says he felt a responsibility to prevent a catastrophic injury for another talented javelin thrower. "I would email the federation and Neeraj to tell the coach to lift the arm up to protect the elbow. Later I met the chief coach in London and told them the same thing. But they were afraid that if they change Neeraj's action, it would affect his performance," he says.

Neeraj isn't in India currently, opting to train away from the national camp in Germany. Hohn though is already revolutionising the way the athletes in India train. "There is no doubt that athletes here have been producing good results. But they are not athletic enough. They have weak shoulders and external rotators. They can't take these forces during throws," he says.

In order to boost flexibility, Hohn has the throwers head to the gymnastics hall rather than the weight room. "We haven't yet progressed to doing somersaults but they are practicing how to roll backwards into a handstand. We are doing parallel bars shrugs too. Maybe we will begin swinging handstands and hand walks. Some athletes can walk a little bit but others can't even stand," he says.

Hohn, expected to coach India until the 2020 Olympics, is confident the athletes training under him will improve steadily. However, the fact that the country's best javelin talent is off his radar troubles him.

"I've spoken to Neeraj over Facebook. I know he is training under Werner Daniels in Germany. I'm not sure if he will come back and it is difficult to push an athlete who might not want to work with you. Werner Daniels is a very good coach but it would a shame if Neeraj gets injured or goes in the wrong direction. Neeraj's strength is in his speed. But if you open up too fast and your arm is doing all the work, it will lead to an injury," he says.

"It would be bad if a talent like his is wasted. He is so young. There are enough struggles already in athletics without an unnecessary injury."