Not many would have believed a young Neeraj Chopra would grow up to compete in the Olympic Games, never mind winning a gold medal in the quadrennial event.
However, that’s exactly how things panned out at Tokyo 2020 as Neeraj hurled his name into the history books by becoming independent India’s first-ever medal winner in track and field.
His throw of 87.58m in the javelin throw final at Tokyo 2020 made him just the second Indian to win an individual Olympic gold after shooter Abhinav Bindra in Beijing 2008.
But why exactly could his gold medal throw be a surprise for those who knew Neeraj growing up? Well, to understand that we need to trace our steps back and learn what made Neeraj the super athlete that he is today.
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Growing up in the Khandra village of Panipat district in Haryana, Neeraj came from a family involved in agricultural work. So, no prizes for guessing where his high-fat diet of ghee (clarified butter), makkhan (butter) and malai (clotted cream) came from.
Quite predictably, Neeraj’s diet led to him weighing more than 80kgs as a 13-year-old. His weight didn’t just affect him physically but also made him a victim of bullying and teasing owing to being overweight.
The teasing and bullying though turned out to be the reason behind why his father decided to enrol him in a gym. While in the gym at Panipat, Neeraj used to visit the Panipat Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre.
It was here that the wheels would be set in motion for Neeraj’s journey to the top of the podium at Tokyo. Javelin thrower Jaiveer Choudhary was first to recognize an untrained Neeraj’s talents as the youngster threw 40 metres without any sort of practice.
Jaiveer soon decided to become Neeraj’s coach and trained him rigorously for a year before enrolling him at the Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex in Panchkula.
After honing his throwing ability, Neeraj’s first taste of success came at the National Junior Athletics Championships in 2012. He won gold with a new national record throw of 68.40m and started competing in international events in the following year.
His first international medal was at the 2014 Youth Olympics Qualification in Bangkok where he won silver.
Neeraj’s first throw of over 70 metres soon followed at the 2014 senior nationals. He then went on to complete a world record throw of 81.04m in the junior category at the All India Inter-University Athletics Meet in 2015. It was also his first throw of over 80 metres.
The next year saw him equal the Indian national record at the time with an 84.23m throw to win gold at the 2016 South Asian Games.
Neeraj also won gold in the 2016 IAAF World U20 Championships and set a world junior record of 86.48m to become the first Indian athlete to achieve a world record.
By now, Neeraj had well and truly announced his arrival on the international javelin circuit – a far cry from the obese kid facing bullies. The next few years saw him win golds at the Asian Championships, the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games.
Belief began to grow with each passing performance that Neeraj could finally end India’s 121-year wait for an Olympic medal in track and field.
However, an arthroscopic surgery on the elbow of his throwing right hand in 2019 briefly halted Neeraj’s development and threw a spanner in the works as far as his prospects of an Olympic medal at Tokyo was concerned.
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Neeraj though showed that he’s ready for Tokyo 2020 and bounced back with a national record throw of 88.07 at the third Indian Grand Prix in Patiala in March.
Even then not many thought that the 23-year-old from Panipat would go on to win gold at Tokyo 2020 in a few months’ time but that’s exactly how things transpired.
Looking ahead, Neeraj seems to have the world at his feet or rather more appropriately for him in the palm of his right hand.
Still only 23, he has plenty more to offer for his country and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continues to add to his accolades in the decade to come.
But first up, will be breaching the magic 90m mark that will put him among the pantheons of javelin throw greats.
Going by his career trajectory, it seems like just a matter of time before he manages to do the unthinkable again and inspire youngsters in the country to take up javelin – a sport not many in India would have even been aware of prior to Neeraj’s Tokyo 2020 history-making exploits.
Featured photo: SAI Media