Around this time last year, Neeraj Chopra was the toast of the country. His historic Olympic gold medal led to innumerable felicitations across India and it took him nearly 10 days after returning from Tokyo to go back home to Panipat. All the public events, and the demands of sponsors and advertisers, eventually took a toll on his health - he had to leave a ceremony near his village midway due to exhaustion and fever - and on his fitness; he was away from the track for nearly three months and put on 14 kgs.
Something had to give and, in December he went to the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Centre in California in to finally focus on his craft.
For six months we heard little of Neeraj. He did the occasional press conference and social media post, but there was no talk of a comeback. While his competitors began their seasons, Neeraj continued to train. There was curiosity, maybe even mild concern, among the media and fans: What was going on with him?
We needn't have worried. When he did finally get back to competing, at the Paavo Nurmi Games in Finland on June 14, he returned with a bang. In his first competitive event in 311 days, he needed just two throws to shatter his own national record [88.07m] with 89.30m.
Over 87 days, Neeraj Chopra picked up a World Championships silver, two personal bests and a podium finish in all six events he competed in, capping it with the Diamond League title on Thursday night. What was it that he did in those six months in California that brought about such a stark improvement?
"I was quite late to resume training after the Olympics and the biggest challenge I initially faced was my fitness. Once I had regained my fitness, the next hurdle was that I had less time to get back to competing but I was determined to make the best use of the time I had. I worked on my technique, worked a lot with a medicine ball and got my strength back. I used to put in a lot of effort earlier but half of it was wasted effort due to faults in my technique. But my technique has become better and has translated to better throws," he said in a media interaction.
Neeraj's coach Klaus Bartonietz, a biomechanics expert, is a strong advocate of proper technique over power. In earlier interactions, he's stressed on the need for the "body to bend like a bow and then expand with explosive power when the javelin is released."
The improved technique has worked wonders for Neeraj: he has been uber consistent this season, averaging in the late 80s at each of his six events. He hasn't crossed the much-hyped 90m mark, but he doesn't seem the tiniest bit bothered by it.
Incredible feeling to close the 2022 season as Diamond Trophy winner. The atmosphere was brilliant and it was extra special to have my uncle and friends in the stadium. Happy to win my first �� trophy!
Sabhi ke pyaar aur support ke liye bahut bahut dhanyawad. ���� ���� pic.twitter.com/zfVlMHUEIx
- Neeraj Chopra (@Neeraj_chopra1) September 9, 2022
"The 90m mark is a barrier and it is a magical mark for sure, but what do I do if I throw 90m and do not win? Then even 90m will feel less and maybe I would want to throw 93m. The main thing is to win the gold, irrespective of the distance. What matters is how you handle the situation and how you perform."
"I have been very consistent this season and that is my biggest takeaway. I threw 89m in three events and crossed 88m in the three other events. I will once again say that I am not disappointed to not have crossed the 90m mark."
Imagine you've got a billion people rooting for you to cross the 90m mark, but you're unfazed. "It will happen when it has to happen," he says with a disarming smile.
He adds that while people's expectations of him serve as motivation, he cannot always win the gold. "The dikkat [issue] is that everyone wants gold. There's only one gold [on offer] and they want you to win the gold."
How does he deal with the pressure? "I handle the pressure by focussing on giving my 100% in every competition. The pressure would get to me if I focus on having to win only the gold. Recently, when I won silver at the World Championships, I saw many people who said 'he won silver and why did he not win the gold.' That mentality will have to change."
This Neeraj of today has a very mature approach to the sport. He was conscious enough to take a break and skip the Commonwealth Games after straining his groin at the World Championships. The elbow injury in 2019, which ruled him out for nearly 18 months, had taught him to rest his body when it needs it.
It's an extension of this mature approach that has seen him focus on the medal and not the distance. When asked if he would rather throw 88m and win gold [which happened at the Diamond League final] or throw 89m and win silver [which happened at the World Championships], he says: "I feel there is not a lot of difference between 88m and 89, but the color of the medal is more important. If you win an event by throwing 85m, then it means you have handled the situation well. It means the conditions were tough and that you did well in the conditions."
A prime example of this was the Kuortane Games where he threw 86.69m to top the podium. The track was treacherous - slippery and wet - and he held his composure to see it through. He didn't go all out, the focus was on remaining injury-free. He adapted the same approach for the Lausanne Diamond League event too, where he made a comeback from a groin injury. As coach Bartoneitz says, Neeraj competed with an 'applied handbrake' and did not go full throttle. The aim was to remain injury-free and go all out at the Zurich final. Neeraj did just that.
The mature approach also shows in how he is planning to go about his off-season. He's steadfast on two aspects: not gaining any extra weight and balancing his other commitments.
"The last time [after the Olympics] was a new experience for me and it was a little tough to balance it out but I have learnt from it. I will plan out my commercial commitments beforehand and then focus 100% on training when the season begins because that is of primary importance. I ate a lot last time and had no control, but will aim to not gain weight this time around. I'll plan it out properly so that I will be in good shape for the next season and the 2024 Olympics."