Prior to the start of his athletics season this year, there was the tiniest fraction of self doubt in Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra’s mind. Having created history a year before at the Tokyo Games, the question was if he would be able to continue to perform at the highest level or would the pressure of expectations of being India’s greatest athletics icon weigh him down.
Three tournaments into 2022, that question looks like it’s been answered quite comprehensively. The 24-year-old broke the national record with a throw of 89.30m in his very first competition in June this year at the Paavo Nurmi Games. He then won his second competition at the Kuortane Games in Finland, in terrible conditions. Then on Thursday evening, he would break his national record yet again with a throw of 89.94m at the Stockholm Diamond League. “This is my third competition this year and I’ve thrown well in all three competitions,” he said after his competition.
“I’ve said before that only when I start competing again will I find out if I have the pressure of competing as an Olympic champion,” Chopra says. “So far, I’ve been able to compete with a free mind. I’m able to perform and my mind is clear. I’m able to compete at 100 per cent,” he says.
At the Diamond League, Chopra also very nearly answered another question many had had before the start of the season – would he be able to enter the 90m club. Although he missed out by just 6 centimetres – Chopra says he’s happy with the effort in his very first throw of the competition.
“It feels good. It wasn’t that I have to do it in the first throw. My plan was just to compete well and put in my best effort. That was my mindset. It was actually a pretty good first throw. It was very close to 90m and I thought it would be enough,” he says.
Chopra’s throw would normally have been enough to win a competition – it was after all a meet record in Stockholm. That record lasted only a few minutes as Anderson Peters who is shaping up to be Chopra’s greatest threat went past him with a throw of 90.31m. While Chopra wouldn’t improve on the mark he made in his first competition, he was satisfied with the fact that he was consistently (Chopra threw a series of 89.94m, 84.37m, 87.46m, 84.77m, 86.67m and 86.84m) throwing in the high eighty-meter mark.
“When Anderson crossed 90m, I thought I have to do it. But for throwing 90 meters, every thing has to be perfect. Puri technique perfect hoti hai, tabhi itna lamba throw hota hai. (Only when your full technique is perfect are you able to make such a big throw)And every time you put in that amount of effort, your body gets tired. I was happy with the performance because every throw was good,” Chopra said.
Chopra isn’t worried about that number. He knows it will come eventually. “I threw close to 90m. I thought I would cross 90m today. But it’s OK. I have more competition this year,” he said after the competition.
That mark could come in just a few weeks time when he takes part in the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Chopra, has gold at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Olympics, but a world medal is still something that eludes him. He’s only competed once in 2017 where he didn’t make it out of the qualification stage. It’s unlikely that will happen again.
Indeed, it’s going to be hard to bet against Chopra becoming only the second Indian medalist (long jumper Anju Bobby won bronze in 2003) to place on the World Championships podium. Expectations are building up again and while Chopra admits he might face some pressure as the tournament gets closer, he’s not very worried since he’s proved he can handle the strain already. “Yes we have only have one medal at the world championships. But so far there’s no pressure that we have to do something at worlds. But every competition is different and in Oregon we will find out (just how much pressure there is). Theres not a lot of days left (for the worlds) We won’t change our training too much but try to improve and maintain what we are doing. We will put full jor (effort). That’s our job and that’s what we will do,” he says.