The best is yet to come, says Olympic and World Javelin champion Neeraj Chopra in this exclusive interview with Jyotsna Mohan for Gulf News.
As 2023 begins to wrap up, he looks back at his year, his injury scares and why he is an athlete with a voice. There could be one last hurrah, the results of the world athlete of the year will be announced on December 11.
A brand ambassador of JSW sports that represents the finest bouquet of top Indian athletes, Chopra also has a special message for the Indian cricket team, winning, losing, and picking up the routine he says is the life of an athlete.
Q: Neeraj, the year is almost ending, and you have won everything there was to win and yet you said somewhere that it was still not your best?
A: If we speak of medals then the year has gone very well because the world championship gold medal was one that I had been waiting for a while. The Asian games medal was a repeat so if you look at it in terms of medals, it all went well. But speaking of distance there was a lot of capacity to perform well but because of injury I had to leave some competitions and with rehab a comeback took time.
There was a situation where it looked like maybe I will not be able to participate or I will not be 100% fit, despite that I played and this year I became mentally stronger because even though my preparations were not the best, to win a gold at the world championships and to give my season best at the Asian games makes me think that in the coming years when I am fully prepared then how much better my throw will look.
Q: There could still be one more celebration. You are nominated for world athlete of the year.
A: Just to be nominated among such athletes is a matter of happiness. As I was saying that earlier I was at a stage where even competing was uncertain and then to get the news that my name is in the final five, so let’s see. We can only wait, but the competition is tight, the athletes are very strong.
Q: Paris Olympics is just around the corner, what do you think will be your biggest challenge?
A: I think for me the biggest challenge will be to stay away from injury because in javelin there are chances of injury. When it comes to training, I will not leave any preparation and the attempt will be to give only my best. If in my mind there is no scare of anything and I can give my 100% both in mind and body with complete focus, then there is no problem for me. Then I will come back after performing well.
Q: Your life as an athlete is one of being intensely disciplined, since the Tokyo Olympics and now as we count down to Paris, has there been any change?
A: There is always an attempt to better the discipline, there are very few athletes in javelin who have had a long career without injury and that is my target, to have good discipline and continue my training and to keep myself fit. That would be the best thing for me because to win an Olympics gold is big but to repeat that win is tougher.
Q: Personally speaking, since winning the gold at Tokyo have you seen any change in yourself?
A: Absolutely. My self-confidence and belief have increased. I am not speaking of overconfidence but before the Tokyo games when I went for the Diamond League, I wasn’t able to get a position, after Tokyo there came a belief that I can also perform well in big and international competitions.
Post that wherever I competed, the throw was good and consistent, and I got positions. I learnt how to balance things, how to meet people, how to speak with them and you learn from the people you meet. In life and as an athlete, many things have improved, and I have also learnt a lot.
Q: You are an athlete with a voice, whether it is speaking up for the protesting wrestlers or in support of Pakistan’s javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem, yet you speak in such a way that you are not involved in the politics of it all which is remarkable. How do you balance it out?
A: I think it is important to be surrounded by a good team and a circle of friends. The other thing I try is that I should have some knowledge, our country is big and something or the other keeps happening, and we are training so we can’t speak about every topic.
Also, I have very little involvement with social media so if I know something or feel that here, I should speak up especially about athletes or sports I try, otherwise most of the attention is on training because that is our identity and that is the most important thing for us.
Q: You speak of mental training, it is missing especially at the ground level, how essential is it for our athletes?
A: When you start you should have a belief in yourself, families should also give their children who are doing hard work some time and be patient. The biggest problem in this time of internet and social media is that patience is a casualty. When we do hard work, we want quick results. But this is not how it works.
For both our body and mind to reach a level it will take the time it needs. This is what I want to say to the new kids who are starting at the ground level, don’t look for a shortcut. In the beginning we have to face defeat, very rarely do we start training and are immediately victorious. slowly we learn from our defeats and prove ourselves.
Q: When I last spoke to you, I asked you what you would like as your legacy and you replied, to popularise javelin in India. It is now a reality. How did you feel while competing with Kishore Jena?
A: It felt very good, there were two Indians at the Asian Games and the competition between us was so good and Jena, along with a throw of 87+ also got an Olympic qualification. I feel happy because not just javelin, people have started recognising athletics.
Q: So, will you tweak that legacy now?
A: Next year is Paris and if everything goes well then, we can talk about this again and I can also add some extra things on what else can be done and what else I can give for javelin, athletics, and my country.
For now, if I can win there and raise the flag of my country, that will be the biggest thing for me. I will give my hundred per cent, there will be nothing lacking from my side.
Q: This year what did you that was not related to javelin and yet you enjoyed it?
A: I got to spend more time with my family which is not a usual occurrence since travel is mostly abroad. We travelled together as well which I was not able to do earlier. Even during my injury, I took some time out to travel including to Switzerland and this was something different from my normal routine and it was a good change for me.
Q: What do you miss the most during your training?
A: I miss a good throw. The satisfaction of a good throw, technically and distance wise, its level is something else.
Q: Today if you were asked to write a book, what would it be called?
A: I think there is still time to write a book and I am not a good writer either. Today I would title it wait and watch because there is time to still accomplish a lot. So, all I can say is wait and watch what happens next, the best is yet to come.