Shivpal Singh overcomes injury struggles to make a mark in Neeraj Chopra's absence

Shivpal Singh reacts in the final of the men's javelin throw event during the 2018 Asian Games. MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

Shivpal Singh admits he was unprepared for what awaited him when he returned to his hotel room from the Khalifa international stadium in Doha on Monday evening. His phone had just connected with the hotel wireless internet and a period of craziness ensued. "For ten minutes straight, it was only buzzing with the notification of missed calls and Facebook and WhatsApp messages that had come. It actually got hot with the amount of messages that were coming. It was the first time I had something like that happen to me," he says.

The congratulations were for his achievements on the field just a few hours before. Singh had won a silver medal in the men's javelin throw at the Asian Athletics Championships, but more significantly had registered a personal best of 86.23m. That effort placed him second on the list of Indian javelin throwers, only behind Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medalist Neeraj Chopra, who holds the Indian record of 88.06m. Chopra was unable to participate in the Asian Championships but Singh, 23, ensured that India's javelin prowess was well represented. The adulation was thus entirely warranted.

"I was making it a point to answer every message I got and thank everyone. I was still answering messages when I went off to sleep," says Singh.

It was a very different reaction to what he experienced just seven months ago. He had been competing in his maiden Asian Games then and had expected to at least place on the podium, having recently thrown his then personal best of 82.28m. However, a flare up of an elbow injury ended those hopes. He threw 74.11m in his first, and eventually his only, attempt of the competition. He could only watch from the sidelines as compatriot Neeraj Chopra stamped his authority over the rest of the field with a gold medal winning performance. The fact that the bronze medal went at 80.75m, well below his personal best, only added to the hurt.

"It was an easy medal and I missed it. At the end of the competition, there were a lot of journalists and they all were chasing Neeraj. Absolutely no one was interested in how I was doing. I was just sitting holding my elbow. It was a strange feeling. But that's how it is. People only want to talk to you if you are doing well," admits Singh.

What was particularly disappointing for Singh was the fact that the Asian Games weren't even the first time that he had suffered an injury right before a major event. "I had been selected for the junior world championships in 2015 too, but just before that I got the first elbow injury of my career and they sent someone else instead," he says.

It was a pattern that had repeated itself over his career. There was little doubt that Singh had talent. As someone who grew up in a family of javelin throwers in Varanasi - father Ramashray Singh was a Uttar Pradesh state-level competitor, while uncle Jagmohan was a ten-time gold medal winner in the inter-services competition - that was to be expected.

The results too were there to be seen, at least in national competitions; he was included in the national camp after a throw of 79.34m that he made as a 19-year-old at an Indian Grand Prix event in 2016. Yet, with niggles constantly bothering him, the progress that might have been expected of him never materialized. It wasn't as if he lacked the ability, for videos of Singh throwing the javelin 86m during practice sessions have been posted by his friends to social networking sites. "I was able to throw that much in practice but I was simply not able to do that in competition," he says.

The injuries persisted even after coach Uwe Hohn joined the national camp in late November 2017. Hohn didn't make any dramatic changes to Singh's training or technique. "Even when he joined, I was suffering a shoulder injury. He only said he would start working with me once I recovered," says Singh.

It was only when the national team shifted for a training camp to South Africa at the end of the 2018, that Hohn made a significant alteration to the way Singh trained. "Coach simply stopped me from throwing the javelin in practice," recalls Singh. It was a change that he wasn't very happy with at the start. "Bahut pareshan tha (I was very troubled). I kept asking 'coach, can I throw today' and he kept saying no. I was used to having at least two throwing sessions a week but I had maybe had two sessions over several months when I was in South Africa. At one point I thought I had made a mistake by even going to South Africa," says Singh.

There was method to Hohn's tactics though. Knowing that Singh was susceptible to injuring his throwing arm when he threw, the former world record holder simply had him build his strength in the gym room. That effort paid off - Singh says he's added 10 kilos to his snatch (112kg) and the same weight to his clean (145kg).

The results showed in the Federation Cup, Singh's first major competition of the season in March this year, which he won with a new personal best of 82.56m. Even that throw however didn't mark him out as someone most of his competitors took seriously at Doha. The bigger item of interest was the fact that Neeraj Chopra would be missing the competition with an elbow injury of his own.

While Singh knew that there wasn't going to be much attention on him, he was also determined to ensure it didn't stay that way. "I was certain I was going to do something special here. A lot of my colleagues would say that I had promised to do the same thing in the past too but this time I was very confident," he says. The 86.23m throw came with the second of his six attempts and one he felt was going to be big the moment he bounded down the runway. "I felt from the moment I ran down to the moment I blocked and then released that the throw was going to be very good," he says.

It was an effort that Singh admits took his rivals by surprise. "The Pakistani athlete Arshad Nadeem, who had won bronze at the Asian Games and finished eighth in Doha, was congratulating me. He said that he had been expecting Neeraj to make these big throws. He had never expected me to throw 86m. But now a lot of eyes will be on me," he admits.

Singh insists he isn't yet done. "Even during the competition, coach Hohn was telling me that I needed to get my body to the front. I was pulling it too far back because of which my throw were going higher rather than longer. He was telling me that I have the potential to cross 90m too," says Singh.

That magic figure is going to be his next big challenge, one he is hoping to cross at the World Championships. "I still think there are places for me to improve. My technique can get better and I can work even more on my strength. If I stay injury-free, there's no reason I can't get there," he says.