Neeraj Chopra's throwing for the first time since the Olympics. This reporter watched the event with the next generation of Indian javelin throwers, Rohit Yadav and Sahil Silwal, and their coach Jaiveer Choudhary, in a Chennai hotel room.
Liza Residency, Tuesday, 10:45 pm.
There's a buzz in room 103. Rohit and Sahil have just seen "Neeraj bhaisahab", their neighbour at the national camp in Patiala, in action for the first time in 10 months, complete with his long hair and headband. It's a strong first throw - 86.92m. It's the best yet in a field that features world leader Anderson Peters and Tokyo silver-medallist Jakub Vadlejch.
We huddle around a mobile screen but it's too small for everyone to watch on. An attempt to stream it on the TV fails but, seconds later, a laptop is flung open and we're all set.
The conversation turns to the athletes' trip to the shore temple in Mahabalipuram near Chennai [where they were competing in the Inter-State Championships], when there's an important update: Neeraj has set a new national record (NR) of 89.30m.
There's a sudden sense of thrill and confusion in the air.
Thrill: because it's a new NR.
Confusion: We wanted to see the throw but didn't...did we miss it? No, the stream hasn't shown the throw yet...but updates on Twitter say Neeraj has registered a massive personal best.
Some frantic tapping of mobile screens ensues and the World Athletics' Continental Tour page confirms that Neeraj has indeed broken the record.
"Dikhado throw yaar. Aise mat karo yaar. [Show us the throw already!]" laments Sahil.
His pleas were heard in Turku, some 7000 km away. "Here it is, here it is," Rohit screams.
On the screen was Neeraj going about his business and scripting yet another piece of history.
"Seedhi khadi ho gayi javelin. Khadi-khadi land hogayi [The javelin landed straight] His release was so tagda [strong]. New NR for India, bhai," exclaims Rohit. A round of claps and full-throated "woohoo's" follow (followed by the room door being shut to keep the noise in).
"Aise bade competitions mein bade throw lagte hain. Zyada fight hoti hai na wahan pe [Such big competitions attract big throws owing to the level of competition]," says Rohit.
Three days ago, Rohit had a bada [big] competition of his own - the men's javelin event here - where he recorded four 80+ throws [82.45m, 80.49m, 82.54m, 82.07m] and set three personal bests (PB).
While DP Manu's massive 84.35m throw took gold, Rohit's efforts were a strong indication of his levels of consistency. Sahil, who is recovering from an oblique muscle injury, finished 12th with a best of 69.43m. The duo is among the group of four young Indian throwers, Yashveer Singh being the fourth, who have crossed the coveted 80m mark.
Waiting for Neeraj's next throw, the conversation veers to how Sahil's wallet went missing [it was found later], the athletes' taxi troubles in Chennai, their surfing trip to the fishing town of Kovalam and how they wound up the evening by gorging on pizzas.
Meanwhile, Oliver Helander, the home favourite, throws a monstrous 89.83m to take the lead and draws a huge round of applause from the crowd.
Neeraj's next three throws are fouls. Sahil reasons that "the distance might not have been the best." He's right: replays show that Neeraj's throws fell short or just around the 80m mark and he voluntarily stepped past the end-line to chalk off the effort.
The two are in awe of Neeraj's fitness. They've seen him train from close quarters and know his grind, but they're particularly impressed by his current conditioning. He's absolutely ripped now, but that wasn't the case a few months ago.
Neeraj had put on close to 12 kilos in all the post-Olympics celebrations. When he went skydiving in Dubai [October 2021], he was just short of their limit of 100kgs. "He weighs around 88kgs now, he's in his groove," notes coach Choudhary.
Helander calls it a day after the fourth round. "Helander has surprised us all. He's done better than the other celebrated throwers," says Rohit with a laugh.
With Helander out, Neeraj is presented with a chance of outdoing the Finnish thrower. Rohit talks about Neeraj's action and how he tried it in the Inter-States here, but it didn't particularly click for him.
Neeraj's throwing action has struck a chord with the next-gen. "Manu has started practising Neeraj's follow-through routine, the one where he throws the javelin and comes down with the momentum," Manu's coach Kashinath Naik had said a few days ago.
Neeraj's final throw is on: he lets the javelin soar, turns away to the crowd and throws his hands in the air in a familiar gesture, made iconic in Tokyo. The expectations in room 103 build as the javelin flies before it finally lands on 85.85m.
Neeraj is happy, the athletes in the room are happy. It's his first competition in over 300 days and he's secured a PB + NR, so there's no complaining.
The evening winds up with talk about Neeraj's puppy Tokyo, gifted to him by Abhinav Bindra. Rohit and Sahil reveal all the shararti [mischief] he gets into and describe how he lives the "athlete life": he wakes up at 5 am and accompanies them for practice, naps post that until lunch-time. Then a siesta follows before he runs around for two hours in the evening, followed by a heavy dinner. And then it's time to unwind and call it a night. He even has his own Instagram page, Tokyo Chopra.
The manner in which they speak of Neeraj, like he's one of their own, and how Neeraj reciprocates their feelings is admirable. "Unhi ke wajah se aaj throw lag rahi hai [We're throwing so well only because of him]," says Rohit, who trained with Neeraj when they camped for three months in South Africa in 2019.
No matter where he is, Neeraj keeps a track of their events and makes sure to send them congratulatory messages and feedback. He had congratulated both Rohit and Sahil when they crossed the 80m mark. He also conveyed his best to Manu the day after he threw 84.35m here. His simplicity and continued connection to his roots are what set Neeraj apart.
Rohit's Instagram chats with Neeraj are a collection of memes, funny clips and a few sports highlights. "Hamari toh daily baat hoti rehti hai. Zyadatar javelin ke bahar ke baatein hi hoti hain. Bhaisahab ke saat hassi-mazzak hota rehta hai [We talk everyday and it's mostly about stuff other than javelin. It's all fun and laughter on our chats]," says Rohit.
Neeraj has achieved his place in history but, after all the awards, photoshoots, endorsements and felicitations, he's still "Neeraj bhaisahab" to the next generation of javelin throwers. And he wants to wants to empower them to reach the heights he has.