Love at 1st flight: Indian javelin thrower inspires his nation, from Eugene

There was no grand scheme that set Neeraj Chopra on the path to becoming an Olympic javelin champion, just simple suggestion.

Fat and spoiled – as he described it – as a child growing up in northern India, Chopra’s uncle one day suggested that he go to a nearby stadium to get some exercise.

It was there that Chopra saw the spear for the first time. Some might say it was love at first flight – a twist of fate that has made him a gold medalist and a household name in a country of a billion people. Chopra will be looking to add another title to its growing list of successes as of Thursday in the qualifying rounds at the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon.

“I keep hearing stories about kids wanting to get into athletics and parents being more open to allowing their kids to get into athletics,” Chopra, 24, said in an email interview with The Associated Press. “I think that’s the true legacy of my medal and I’m incredibly happy and proud of it.”

Chopra has appeared on the cover of since becoming India’s first Olympic gold medalist in athletics last year Fashion India and his name has become one of the most searched for on the internet by sportspeople in a country where cricket rules. August 7th is National Javelin Day in India – the day he went gold in Tokyo.

It wasn’t all coincidence.

Growing up, he always loved to throw. He retrieved the family’s livestock from the water by throwing stones near them, no matter how far away he was. He loved throwing sticks as far as possible while running around his family’s wheat and rice farm.

It helped turn his right arm into a powerful machine. His very first javelin throw was a modest 30 meters (98 ft, 5 in). Two weeks and a few tips later he was already at 45 meters (147-7).

“I remember it felt really good to be able to throw that far,” he said.

A file photo of Neeraj Chopra of India competing in the men’s javelin throw final at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo on Saturday August 7, 2021 in Tokyo. Chopra competes in Eugene, Oregon this week.

Matthias Schrader/AP

He was just getting started. His winning throw in Tokyo was 87.58 meters (287-4). Nowadays it is recognized everywhere in India – on streets, shopping malls, airports and restaurants. Everyone wants to take a picture with Chopra or get his autograph.

“It’s different than it used to be when I could be more carefree in public, but I like to think of it as a privilege to receive so much admiration,” Chopra said. “Most of all, I’m grateful for the support.”

There’s also pressure as one of the most recognizable faces in a country that worships cricket, football, badminton, field hockey and now the javelin.

“I try to go into every competition with the same goal, which is to do my best and try to get my best shot,” Chopra said. “As long as I’m training well and feeling good in my body, I feel confident about my chances and that’s the attitude I usually go into any competition, be it the Olympics or the World Championships. It has worked for me in the past so hopefully it will continue to work for me.”

In May, the Indian Athletics Association (AFI) introduced a children’s javelin for the first time to promote an even safer way of participating in the sport. The launch was announced by none other than Chopra in a video message.

“We cannot let go of the surge in interest in athletics among young people in India,” said AFI President Adille J. Sumariwalla in a press release.

Chopra is also in the Indian Army and holds the rank of subedar, which is one higher than junior commissioned officer, he explained. He was not given any specific military requirements other than to keep doing what he does best – throwing.

In that regard, Chopra is still searching for the “perfect” pitch where everything falls into place. In May 2019, he suffered a setback while undergoing elbow surgery to remove loose bone fragments. That caused him to miss the Doha Worlds this season, making him even more eager for this version of the Oregon Worlds. His biggest challengers be Anderson Petersthe reigning world champion from Grenada.

Chopra is returning to the form he was in before elbow surgery. At the end of June he threw 89.94 (295-1) – the longest throw of his career. For perspective, the world record is 98.48 (323-1), set by Jan Zelezny in 1996.

“Despite the many competitions I’ve been in and the many pitches I’ve thrown, I always feel like something could have been better,” Chopra said. “Even so, I think that feeling is also important to keep the hunger and urge to do better alive.”

It also helps to know that there are children in India who are committed because of him.

“I’m known as Neeraj Chopra,” he said, “because of the spear.”

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