Humble beginnings: How a bamboo patch carved javelin thrower Rohit Yadav's path

Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

While he will probably go on to use many others models in the future, Rohit Yadav's Nemeth Special 90 javelin will always hold a special significance for him. On Monday evening, at the athletics ground at the Sports Authority of India in Sonipat, he was wielding that spear when he burst into the limelight as one of the brightest prospects in Indian athletics.

Competing in the U-18 category of the national javelin challenge, he recorded a throw of 81.75m. The mark isn't just a new U-18 national record, but also by far the best throw by an U-18 athlete this year -- the next best is a throw of 73.95m by China's Junzi Cao.

The 700gm aluminium javelin was a gift from a well wisher. As well it was, for Yadav, who hails from the village of Dabhiya in East Uttar Pradesh's Jaunpur district, would never have been able to fork out the roughly 35,000 rupees (Euro 705) that the javelin otherwise costs.

Yadav didn't start out with a high-tech javelin like the Nemeth either. He made do with a far more basic approach -- he built his own. When Yadav was first introduced to the javelin throw at age 14 by his father, a former decathlete, there simply wasn't any other way.

"My father had been a sportsperson but he wasn't successful. He was adamant that I should be a javelin thrower though. But there wasn't enough money to get a proper javelin. So what he did was go to a patch of bamboo that grows near our village and use that," says Yadav. Making a javelin from wild bamboo wasn't easy. "You have to take only the top part of the bamboo. Otherwise it becomes too thick. Then you have to sharpen one end so it will fly well."

While bamboo is cheap, it obviously doesn't compare to the high-quality metal javelins used for international competition. "It doesn't last very long. I could probably throw for maybe two or three days before it's completely destroyed. Also you can't throw very far with it because the bamboo is never completely straight. I don't think I've ever thrown more than 30 meters with a baans javelin," says Yadav.

"I've worked with many athletes and I can say that Rohit is a physical phenomenon." Coach Michael Musselman

Despite his humble beginnings, Yadav proved to be a natural. He got his first opportunity to compete using a metal javelin at a district-level competition in 2014 -- and immediately recorded a throw of 49m to claim gold. His star only continued to rise with gold medals at the state and then youth national level. His school principal gave him the money to buy his first professional javelin for 12000 rupees, which he used to win a gold medal at the World School Games in 2016 and claim a silver at the Asian Youth Championships in 2017.

Just as it seemed set to break out though, his career hit a hurdle when he was found to have failed a dope test for an anabolic steroid at the Youth Nationals, just before the Asian Youth Championships. He then faced a potential four-year ban that was eventually reduced to a year.

Even that prospect seemed dreadful. "I thought my career would end. Ever since I found out about the failed test, I was coming to Delhi for hearings of my case. I didn't really think my career would ever continue," he says. His reduced sentence though would end up motivating him. "I felt I had been given a second chance for a reason. I had to prove myself to the world once again."

Yadav wouldn't be fighting on his own this time. He continued to be supported by his parents, especially his father Sabhajeet, who used to run marathons across the country, using whatever prize money he won to provide for his son's sporting dreams.

Prior to his suspension, Yadav's performance had also been noticed by Amentum Sports, a sports consultancy firm that specialises in supporting javelin throwers. Knowing Yadav was training alone in his village, they helped him contact Michael Musselman, a coach based in Lima, Peru.

The 18000-odd kilometers that separated Yadav and his coach were bridged by a cameraphone and the internet. "Coach asked me to record my throws from two different angles and then message him the videos over Whatsapp or Facebook. He would analyse them and suggest what changes I had to do," says Yadav.

It was an unwieldy fix but it was one that had to do. Musselman, for his part, was eager to work with Yadav. According to the coach, Yadav has immense physical potential. "I've worked with many athletes and I can say that Rohit is a physical phenomenon. He isn't the strongest athlete but he has incredible flexibility in his shoulders. I've not seen many athletes with that ability," he says.

Musselman's goal, he says, was not just to improve the distances thrown by Yadav, but also to help him avoid the injuries that routinely plague young javelin throwers. "He's very highly motivated. In fact, the biggest challenge for me is to get him to avoid over-training himself and get him to throw as correctly as possible," he says. "These are simple things. Making sure his elbow isn't too low to the ground, that his leg blocks properly and the tip of the javelin is as close to his face as possible before he throws it."

Yadav has luckily stayed injury-free thus far -- something that he would also credit in some part to the fact that until about a year ago, he was training with bamboo javelins. "The bamboo javelin is actually very good for your elbow because it is so flexible. You can't throw very far with it but it also ensures you don't pick up injuries," he says.

Yadav, though, isn't throwing the springy bamboo now that he is looking to make his name at the elite level. The 700gm javelin he's using until now is meant for the youth categories and he will soon be making the shift to the 800gm piece that's used in senior competition. His sponsors are providing him with an international quality OTE javelin over the next few days. That bit of kit will be important if Yadav is to cross the 80m mark at the senior level. Coach Musselman certainly thinks this is possible.

"Right now Rohit is not strong enough (he weighs just over 74 kg while standing six feet tall). So all his performances are coming because of his technique and his flexibility. But if he gets stronger, and this isn't difficult because of just how much he can improve, he should be able to make throws of close to 90m with the 700gm javelin and at least 80m with the 800gm javelin this year," says Musselman.