They might be only a fortnight away but Neeraj Chopra isn't particularly nervous about opening his season at the Asian Athletics Championships in Doha on April 21. He might be defending a gold medal from the previous edition in Bhubaneswar but nerves, the 21-year-old insists, aren't something he's particularly troubled by. "I can't remember the last time I actually felt worried before a competition. Maybe a long time ago when I was just starting out and I hadn't prepared very well," he says after a training session at the National Institute of Sport (NIS) in Patiala.
No one can accuse him of preparing poorly anytime recently. Not certainly in 2018 when he cemented his status as the premier athletic talent in the country at least of his generation. Last year he won a gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, then shattered his own national record at the Doha Diamond League and then smashed that updated record with another that saw him win a gold medal at the Asian Games.
In a career that has had no shortage of highlight moments -- he was the first Indian to win a gold at the World Junior Championships when he claimed that medal at the 2016 edition in Poland and then added his first senior international gold at the 2017 Asian Championships with a meet record at Bhubaneswar -- 2018 still managed to stand out.
"Pichla saal bahut special aur zaruri tha (Last year was both special and important)," he says. "It had both the Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medals, and for Indians a medal at a Games is a very big achievement. More importantly, I also got gold with good throws. I had a good throw in the Diamond League as well. So I was very consistent."
Chopra's consistency was all the more impressive considering this was a season that began under a cloud of injury. The Indian had suffered the first major crisis of his international career when he appeared to have injured his groin at the Zurich Diamond League in August 2017.
"It was a serious injury," he says. "It took two three months to get rehab for that. I worked with Ishan Marwaha, my physio from JSW [the company that sponsors him] but it was quite difficult to recover. I couldn't run or even take a cross step [the portion of the javelin throw run-up when athletes switch to a sideways stance shortly before throwing the spear] for it."
Despite the injury though, Chopra says he remained confident that the year would be a memorable one. He mentions a poster that hung outside the boundary wall of his hostel at the NIS. "It had a picture wishing the athletes for both the Asian and Commonwealth Games," he says. "And I just took a picture of myself with that poster. I knew right then that I will do something at both those tournaments and return."
It's a testament to his own lofty standards that Chopra wasn't entirely satisfied with what seems to be a remarkable season. "After the CWG gold, a lot of people started to recognize me and started having expectations of me," he says. "I too had expectations of myself. One was that I would touch 90m at the Asian Games. I got a national record there but I must have done something wrong in my training, which is why I didn't get that 90m throw."
The 90m throw remains something that Chopra has his sight set on and his coach -- former world record holder Uwe Hohn -- believes he certainly can. "Our targets for this year, besides staying healthy and getting better, are to throw 92m and finish in the top six at the World Championships in Doha," Hohn says. "Then 94m in 2020 and a medal in Tokyo."
Hohn's confidence stems from a successful off-season training camp Chopra has been through. He has tweaked his throwing action a bit, putting less strain on his right elbow. He has also added a fair amount of muscle -- that has correspondingly increased the strength of his 6'1", 87kg frame -- while cutting his body fat to a minuscule 8.5 per cent.
It's training to ensure that Chopra remains as consistent as he was in 2018 while throwing further on average. "In 2017, I was throwing regularly around 83m and last year I was consistently throwing around 85m," he says. "This year I want to go even further. There's no reason why I shouldn't throw at least 90m this season."
Chopra's belief that he will continue to improve isn't unwarranted. While he has currently only recorded the sixth-best throw of 2018, he's four years junior to the youngest of the top five throwers. "Right now what I have going for me is my shoulder speed but I still cannot match the physical strength [of the top five]," he says. "But I will only get stronger each year as I mature."
Which is why Chopra's first target for 2019 isn't just that he will defend his gold medal at the Asian Championships but also that he will set a marker for how the rest of his season should play out. "In the last two seasons, I threw around 82m in the first competition of the season," he says. "But this time I want to at least start with a throw of 85m."