It is perhaps a statement on just how lofty his own standards are at this point that Neeraj Chopra marked his reaffirmation in the Indian record books on Friday not with a burst of ecstatic celebration but more as if it were a matter of fact.
As he calmly posed for a steady stream of selfie seekers, it was with the patience of someone who understands that this is going to be a very normal occurrence when he takes to the field. There was only the slightest sense of bemusement that the record came off what he hadn't even considered, at the time, a particularly strong throw.
Once updated, what the record books will show is that, on March 5, 2021, Neeraj Chopra threw a javelin 88.07m at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. It will show that this was an improvement on his own national mark of 88.06m, a throw that won him gold at the 2018 Asian Games. And while the season is still young, it will also show that this was the best in the world so far this year. By any measure, this is an elite level throw -- just for perspective, it would have placed Chopra on the podium at the previous edition of the Olympics, and won him gold at the last world championships.
But there's something that the record books won't show you. The significance of that improvement of 1 centimetre.
You see, what the books will not show you is that Neeraj hadn't come into the third leg Indian Grand Prix (IGP) -- a minor competition in the Indian athletic calendar -- with any burning desire to stamp his authority on the field. The havoc wrecked by the coronavirus pandemic on athletics schedules meant this was his first competition in 14 months. In fact, it was just his second in two years (the previous one in South Africa came after another year out with injury). The IGP wasn't even just a warm up event. He made a record throw in what he considered a test event.
Chopra came into the IGP having made a radical change. He had changed his javelin - swapping the Nemeth with one known as the Nordic Valhalla. At first glance, both implements seem the same-- they are both largely made of the same stuff (carbon fibre - metal composites) and weigh in at exactly 800 grams. But for a javelin thrower switching spears is the equivalent of a tennis player switching racquets or an archer changing his bow.
The two javelins differ in the nature of their composition -- the Nordic has a higher proportion of carbon fibre -- and in the shape of the landing tip -- the Nemeth being more rounded.
This leads to different flight qualities. Although the Nemeth is less aerodynamic than the needle like Nordic, it's a lot more forgiving on technique. "As long as you put in a lot of power it will fly a long way," Neeraj explains. The Nordic on the other hand... "Unless you get it exactly right, it won't fly as far as you would expect it to," he says.
Get things right, though and the tradeoff is worth it. "When you throw it in windy conditions, it just cuts through the air. You can throw really big throws with it then," he says. This isn't an exaggeration. World champion Johannes Vetter recorded his personal best throw of 97.76 m on the Nordic.
Neeraj had thrown the Nordic before but it was only in practice. "I've always thought of throwing it in competition but I was worried about how I'd manage if I wasn't getting my technique right. During a competition you don't want that sort of pressure," he says.
Besides, it wasn't as if he had had no success with the Nemeth-- his gold at the World Juniors, the Commonwealth and Asian Games had all come throwing that javelin. But he had had issues. While the javelin was perfect for calm weather, any strong winds would cause it to drift off course. His old National Record was nearly a foul, landing just inside the legal sector, and he struggled throughout the Diamond League in Monaco due to errantly drifting javelins.
If he had to take his game to the next level, Neeraj knew he had to switch javelins. The IGP was as good a time as any.
"Usually in a competition, you don't want to try different things because there are already so many things going on in your head. You have so much energy that you don't want to wonder if there is something wrong with my technique. You just want to throw. But I wanted to see if I could make the change here. Perhaps if it was a bigger competition, I might have doubted myself. But you need to play these smaller events so that you can try new things as well," he says.
What would also help dispel any second thoughts on going back to the spear he was comfortable with was the blustery crosswind that blew across the field throughout his competition.
The switch wasn't seamless. Neeraj figured that out with his first throw itself. "That throw felt perfect. I got a huge amount of power behind it. After completing my action, I turned around and raised my arms because I thought it was going really far," he says. But, while there was nothing wrong the impetus provided, the spear had not been let go off at the perfect release point. After initially looking set to get close to the 90m mark, it dipped suddenly to land at the 83.36m.
Neeraj says that result nearly tempted him to revert to his old javelin but he decided to stick it out. "I didn't come here thinking I have to break my national record. I came here thinking I have to throw with the right technique. I wasn't thinking I have to break my body in the field. The mistake Indians make is they break themselves in competitions where they don't need to. Instead of throwing just with raw power, I'll try and make this a technical event. I'll put in that kind of effort in international events where I need to," he says.
It was a tactic that worked. After four throws where the spear refused to travel true, Neeraj found one that hit the spot in his penultimate effort.
Because of his effort in getting the positioning of the release right, he even felt he hadn't put in all his effort in the throw. "I'm not used to such a feeling and when I finished my action I wasn't even very confident about it. I even looked behind and made a face, ki sahi nahi gaya hai (it hasn't gone so well). But it turned out to be a national record."
While Neeraj was modest about having broken the national record, it is clear he's already looking beyond it. What encourages him far more than those shaking his hand and giving him fist bumps is the reaction of his coach Klaus Bartonietz.
"He was so excited after my throw that the hair on his forearm were standing on their end," says Neeraj. "It's a good feeling that I've broken the record, even if it's by 1 cm. But more importantly, it has told me that now that I've tried something new, I can do better in it also. It's like I've opened a new door for myself," he says.