Neeraj Chopra is not as physically strong as he was at the Tokyo Olympics but a quicker arm speed and consistency in technique is working wonders for him.
Shared News: July 22, 2022 6:29:29 pm
Neeraj Chopra’s biggest strength is his athleticism.(Twitter/Wanda Diamond League)
For no fault of his, the javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra has been forced to behave like a student in a race against time. He’s had to rush through a year’s syllabus in about six months. The extended felicitation post his Olympic gold robbed him of precious time to prepare for the World Championships. Losing weight, regaining athletic fitness, building strength, regaining flexibility, starting throwing drills, and polishing technique must be done step-by-step.
A rushed job is not advisable in an injury-prone sport. Yet Chopra has been able to pass with flying colours. A gold, a silver, a second-place finish in the Diamond League and breaking the national record twice shines on his report card since returning to competition at the Paavo Nurmi Games in June. Two 89-metre plus throws this season and the third best throw of the year make him a favourite at the World Championships in Eugene.
Being short on time has also taught Chopra to prepare smartly. The 24-year-old says he isn’t as strong as he was at the Tokyo Olympics. Improved arm speed and focus on technique has helped him reach within touching distance of 90 metres.
To reach a point where he is on the cusp of throwing 90 metres has not been easy for Chopra after winning the Olympic gold. (File)
“Before going to Tokyo we were in Bhubaneshwar (the throwers camp was moved to the Odisha capital from Patiala). Back then my strength was more compared to today. When it comes to lifting or jumps and all, I was stronger. If I talk about my strength in Tokyo, my full squat was 160 kilograms to 170 kilograms. Now I have done upto 140 kilograms because of the lack of time to build strength. This time the focus is on the technique. My strength is at a good level but the technique in throws is important, like the angle of the throw and that is helping me,” Chopra told Media.
Chopra’s biggest strength is his athleticism. He might as well have been a decathlete because he is good at sprinting, jumping and lifting. He is also blessed with elasticity, flexibility and a natural arm speed which has gotten better.
“I feel my arm speed is faster now. How fast your arm is an important aspect and that is helping me a lot. When it comes to technique there is always scope for improvement.” One of the methods Chopra has used to improve his arm speed is to throw with a lighter javelin in practice. The standard javelin used in the men’s event weighs 800 grams and Chopra uses one which is 100 grams lighter to work on arm speed.
“It is not easy to improve it (arm speed). My natural arm speed is good. We can’t do too much exercise (to improve arm speed), but we can throw with light javelin. In practice after throwing with 800 grams javelin, I throw with a 700 gram javelin to see how fast the arm is. It is lighter and the arm will go faster. The angle of the javelin needs to be good (34 to 36 degrees) and the arm speed too. If arm speed is fast, the force will be transferred to the javelin,” Chopra said.
Dr. Klaus Bartonietz, the biomechanics expert who coaches Chopra, says he is pleasantly surprised with Chopra’s progression this season. An 89.30 metres at the Paavo Nurmi Games to finish second, 86.69 on a slippery runway at the Kuortane Games for first place and 89.94 at the Stockholm Diamond League, just behind World Champion Anderson Peters of Grenada.
Neeraj Chopra during a fitness session. (Neeraj Chopra/Instagram)
“It was a short season. But what can you say, it was excellent. Better than expected. Normally you expect to start the season with 85 metres or 86 metres and then you come to 88 metres. But he started with real good throws and he is doing good,” Bartonietz told Media.
Chopra throwing well with the lighter javelin is a sign of his technique being good, the coach said. The German gives an example of the training throw just a week before the Olympics.
“He threw 90 metres with a 700 gram javelin. It was a very nice throw just six days before qualification (at Tokyo). With a light javelin it is difficult to handle and difficult to control. If you are able to do this it is a good sign. There needs to be control of the javelin. Not throw too early with the arm. Other athletes are inconsistent in technique, but Chopra is more consistent and consistency is a great base for a thrower,” Bartonietz added.
To reach a point where he is on the cusp of throwing 90 metres has not been easy for Chopra after winning the Olympic gold. Having to criss-cross the country to be feted for being the first Indian track and field athlete to win a medal in the Summer Games took its toll. Chopra gained almost 14 kilograms by the time he reached the training base in Chula Vista in California.
“After the Tokyo Olympics, I had put on weight also. So getting back to athletic fitness was a big challenge. I started training in December. So in these five-to-six months I had to do everything. It was challenging but I managed. It took time to throw well with the javelin. If I had started when I was overweight there was a chance of injury.”
Bartonietz believes Chopra can throw 90 metres this season but he isn’t allowing the figure to occupy Chopra’s mind space. Bartonietz gives the example of German great Johannes Vetter to caution against targeting a particular distance rather than the process.
“Neeraj can throw 90 to 92 metres realistically this year but it depends how hard you can train. Vetter had a project ‘100 metres’ but we had a programme 100 kilogram in the snatch (105 kg is Chopra’s personal best) But in Vetter’s case 100 metres means world record. If you focus so much on this, mentally it is not good. You have enough pressure from opponents, from society, then why do you need this additional pressure. This is not advised. More than distance, it is the process of training and practice.”
The athletics calendar has to be flipped back to four years ago to find the last time Chopra didn’t medal at a major competition. At the Diamond League final in Zurich, Chopra finished fourth. A week later Chopra was sixth at the IAAF Continental Cup in Ostrava. Since then Chopra has not returned empty handed in the 11 competitions he has participated in. He has won eight of these, with two second-places and one third spot. Chopra, the Olympic champion, seems destined to add a world championship medal to his CV.
Chopra’s ability to set the tone early in the competition has worked in his favour. At the Olympic Games his first throw of 87.03 would have won him gold. He improved to 87.58 in the second round. His first throw at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games were good enough for gold. That he bettered the distances in the third round and fourth round in Gold Coast and Jakarta proved how far ahead he was of the competition. He proved his class in Tokyo and now gets another opportunity at the World Championships to enhance his reputation.
Yet Chopra’s strength can also be a weakness. Chopra peaks early in the series of six throws in a competition. But what happens if one or two throwers step up in the second half. In Zurich, Chopra was in third place with a best throw of 85.73 metres (2nd throw) till Germany’s Thomas Rohler snatched the spot with 85.76 metres in the last round.
At Stockholm, Chopra broke the national record in his first throw with 89.94 metres and was the clear leader till the third round began. But when defending World Champion Anderson Peters bettered him with 90.31 metres, Chopra had to settle for silver.
Once an athlete throws his personal best in a competition, it will need a herculean effort to better it, Bartonietz said. “In Stockholm he was leading. He already threw a PB. So he did very well and then doing very, very well is difficult.”
Throwers who can pull off a big throw even in the last round can spoil Chopra’s party at the World Championships. “There’s (Anderson) Peters and (Keshron) Walcott. They are able to fight until the end. Neeraj has not been forced to do that so far. In the Olympics his first throw was good enough and then he did better in the second.”