Throwback Monday: Yashvir Singh breaks Neeraj Chopra's record to make history

Yashvir Singh broke Neeraj Chopra's record with a throw of 78.68m at the National Federation Cup Junior Athletics Championships. AFI

Among the many congratulatory calls javelin thrower Yashvir Singh received on Monday evening for setting a new meet record at the 18th National Federation Cup Junior Athletics Championships, the one he cherished the most was from the athlete whose mark he had erased.

It was from Neeraj Chopra, probably the biggest track and field star in the country. Chopra might be a junior world champion, a gold medallist at both the Commonwealth and Asian Games and one of the top contenders for a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, but he took the time out to speak to the 19-year old. "He congratulated me but he also told me to stay focussed. He said 'this is only the start,'" says Yashvir.

Yashvir has a long way to go before he measures up to any of Chopra's achievements but his effort on Monday evening at Bhopal's TT Nagar stadium at least gives a glimpse of his potential. His best throw of 78.68m - recorded in the second of six attempts, surged past the 76.91m that had given Neeraj Chopra the meet record in Hyderabad in 2015. Within a year of Neeraj setting his mark, he would become an icon of the sport in India, winning a gold medal at the 2016 Junior World Championships with a then world junior and senior Indian national record of 86.48m.

Yashvir though will likely never get a chance to replicate that feat. His opportunity was lost last year when the entire World Athletics calendar was gutted owing to the coronavirus pandemic. "I was really hoping to compete at the Junior World Championship and Junior Asian Championships. My target for 2020 was to win a gold medal there. When you compete at the senior level, you get many chances to take part but these (junior) tournaments only come once in your life," he says.

What probably added to Yashvir's disappointment was the fact that he was confident of medalling in both competitions. That was certainly the trajectory his career had been heading towards.

He'd started his career as a javelin thrower back in 2015 at the direction of his father. The village of Deosar, neighbouring Haryana's boxing capital of Bhiwani, had no shortage of pugilistic motivation. Manish Kaushik who has qualified for the Olympics in the men's 63kg boxing weight class is a resident of the village too. Yet it was almost a certainty that Yashvir would be a javelin thrower. His father, Rai Singh had been a javelin thrower of some note himself -- a former Railways champion who twice won medals at the national championships during his own career that ended in 2006. "I was good but I was from a village. I didn't have any quality of coaching or support. I thought, let me teach my children the sport. They can learn from my mistakes and benefit from my experience," says Rai who is also his son's coach.

Yashvir had performed well, winning gold medals at the 2017 and 2018 U-18 nationals and a silver at the 2019 junior nationals. The latter would earn him his first place at the national camp. "When you are starting out, your role models are those who are around you. My father was my role model early on. But it was a huge inspiration to be around Neeraj at the national camp. He's the greatest javelin thrower in India. I look up to him a lot," says Yashvir.

Although he's not very tall for a javelin thrower at only 5'10", Rai feels he makes up for it with his speed and shoulder power. "He's quite explosive. He's still very young but he regularly touches the 75m mark," says his father. That would have been plenty at the junior worlds. COVID-19 wiped out any chance of emulating Neeraj's achievements there though, and it would soon get worse since national camps and even gyms were shut in an attempt to combat the pandemic.

" For three months there wasn't any place to train. At that time, the only place I could train was in my father's fields," says Yashvir. He eventually resumed formal training at the Railway ground in Jaipur. His initial goals for 2020 erased, Yashvir's set new targets for himself.

"I was very disappointed after missing the Junior World Championships. But my father said, let's try to qualify for the senior Olympics," he says. To put things in perspective, Yashvir's personal best of 78.68m which he threw on Monday is nearly 6.5m off from the Olympic qualification standard. But he's optimistic. "I've crossed 80m in practice several times before. My target is now to cross 80m at an event and then improve on that and qualify for the Olympics," he says.

Now that the athletics season's begun in earnest - the federation cup was the first national tournament since the Khelo India university games in February 2020 -- Yashvir's not going to lack tournaments to attempt that feat. He'll travel to Guwahati for the Junior nationals on February 6th and then likely take part in the three Indian Grand Prix and then the Federation Cup. "Hopefully I can do well there," he says. If anything, he'll draw motivation from what Neeraj told him in their call. "He told me I still have a long way to go and many records to break. So I hope I can live up to that," says Yashvir.