Ice-cool Neeraj never doubted winning 'very important medal'
The Metricon floodlights came on early. On the field, Neeraj Chopra was turning on something special.
Starting out by tutoring himself in javelin throw through YouTube videos, he beat the rest of the field by a massive margin and set himself up for gold early. The crowds took him in with a standing ovation. It didn't matter that they hadn't heard of the 20-something boy before. What they'd seen unfold on the field was enough to win them over.
Warming up with a distance of 85.50m in his first attempt, Neeraj then hurled 86.47 in his fourth for a season best performance, around four meters ahead of the second-placed Hamish Peacock, and one centimeter short of his personal best.
Similar numbers would have won him a bronze at the Rio Games; Trinidad & Tobago's Keshorn Walcott had finished third at the Olympics two years ago with a throw of 85.38.
"When you get a first throw like that it builds a lot of pressure on others," he said after his victory. "I think I was well prepared and felt no nerves. I really wanted to touch my personal best and in that desperation I messed up my last two attempts." The fifth one traveled a distance of 83.48 and the last one was a no-attempt.
Neeraj's gold is only the fifth for India in track and field after Milkha Singh, Krishna Poonia, the 4X400 relay women's quartet and Vikas Gowda. Neeraj, though, wasn't carried away by the shared legacy. He spoke little of his moment of glory or the celebrations to follow.
"The competition was good here but I think I was sure of myself. This is a very important medal for me."
Climbing up the stairs into the stands after the medal ceremony, the gold disc tucked below his red jacket and hair falling on his shoulders, Neeraj seemed to have already moved on from whatever he'd achieved.
"One shouldn't be too serious in life. It's good to be disciplined but you should not overdo food restrictions. A bit of enjoyment always works. One should have faith that their training is good enough. It's not healthy to just lock yourself in a room before a big competition." He looked every bit a boy who didn't stay up to panic attacks the night before an exam.
Javelin throw is a velocity-based sport which has the tossers' legs and hips jutting forward and then getting into a cross-over position. It's all about mastering the technique of putting the right foot ahead of the center of gravity and pulling back the javelin to line with the eyebrows, something coach Uwe John beams that Neeraj only has in abundance. "He's good, too good for everyone else."
Another gold medalist of the day, Vinesh Phogat, rushed in to congratulate Neeraj after he had picked up his medal. It was a word they'd given each other to win gold in Gold Coast.
"We first met when I was undergoing rehabilitation two years ago," she explained. "I remember him asking me for an autograph then. Today I raced from the bus to the venue and just to see him standing on the podium holding that medal and to hear the anthem gave me goosebumps. Something in me was stirred and I told myself that I must win gold too. It was a promise we both made to each other."