On Monday evening in Jakarta, Neeraj Chopra's javelin flew from his hand, past the bright floodlights of the Gelora Bung Karno stadium and passed into history near the other end of the ground. As the spear dug into the turf 88.06m away, the 20-year-old screamed in exhilaration. He had scored a new national record and more than enough to win him gold at the Asian Games, only the second in athletics for India in Jakarta this year.
The gold will go into his travel bag, joining the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold, Asian Championships gold in 2017, and the Junior World Championship gold he won as a 19-year-old in 2016 to first break into the national consciousness.
This one is the most satisfying for Neeraj, though.
"The World Championship gold was big but that was still a junior competition. In India, the Asian Games is considered very tough so I'm very happy to have won this," he says. Neeraj hasn't just won gold in Jakarta, he has absolutely annihilated the field. The next best throw was 82.22m, nearly six meters behind. Only three of his rivals got past the 80m mark.
Moments after his first attempt, Neeraj threw his hands up in exultation and turned to his compatriots and coach in the stands behind him. The mark of 83.48m would have won him gold anyways. But he was not satisfied. His next attempt saw him push too hard. The throw was well clear of 80m, but Neeraj is disgusted with it. He steps out of the throwing area and concedes a foul so the throw won't even be recorded.
From the stands, his German coach Uwe Hohn, who once threw the spear nearly a hundred meters, calls out to him.
"Throw from a little back," he says. Searching for as much advantage as he can, Neeraj is too close to the foul line that is causing his body to warp. He has told Neeraj of this in the past too. "He says don't worry about your throw. Just make sure everything is aligned so the javelin is traveling in a straight line," Neeraj explains.
He does that and his own national record, set at the Doha Diamond League, is broken. It lasted all of two months. The throw of 87.48m in Doha had placed him fourth behind Olympic champion Thomas Rohler, world champion Johannes Vetter and Andreas Hoffman, all Germans who are part of the famed 90m club.
Despite that record, Neeraj had remained clear of his ultimate target: entry into the elite 90m club. "Everything has to be perfect to get that throw," Neeraj says. "Your technique, your strength and training all have to be perfect."
The 90m mark wouldn't come on Monday. Neeraj makes a fourth throw of 83.25 and a fifth of 86.36. Neeraj himself understands where he needs to improve. "I released the javelin when my arm was a little high. So it travelled higher than it should have. And that's why I only threw 88m," he says.
Neeraj, though, wasn't chasing 90m here. He knows it will eventually come. Hopefully in the tournaments where it matters most. At only 20, he knows where he has to work on. "My technique still needs to improve. My arm needs to be lower when I throw the javelin and my footwork also needs to be good," he says.
He and coach Hohn have known this for a while. "We have only worked on my strength and conditioning for the last few months. We didn't want to touch my technique until after the Asian Games. Now the target will be the World Championships and the Olympics."