‘I know if I eat a paratha, the coach will make me pay for it in training next day’: Neeraj Chopra

Having chai dabaake at home, going to malls with a cap & mask, walking past a baklava sweets counter in Turkey without getting tempted and setting off a fire alarm trying to fry onions for a tadka in Germany: the many adventures of 24-year-old Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra as raconteured to Andrew Amsan and Nihal Koshie


How has your short break from competitions been so far?

As soon as we finished the Diamond League, my friends, uncle and I went on a small trip to Switzerland. We tried new things there and then I came back home to India. This time I could spend some quality time at home. I had a nice Diwali and had a lot of tea. When I am out of the country training, I don’t take much tea but at home dabaake peeta hun (indulge myself). Now I am going to resume training.

You had already planned to take your friends and family on the trip?

Yes. We had earlier planned to do it after the Commonwealth Games in Birghimam but I didn’t go so that got dropped. But after Zurich, we could manage.

Do you miss certain things you used to do earlier before you became a star?

I still do them. I always loved going to malls and now I just wear a cap and mask. Since coming back to India, I have visited the malls atleast 6-7 times.

No one recognised you?

Some do. But there are some things you shouldn’t stop. It is an experience. You shouldn’t stop doing things which you have always been doing, and that give you joy. If you are forced to change your lifestyle completely then even gold medals won’t make you happy. Real joy is in doing what you like. I like going out, driving my car and visiting malls. The visits have reduced but I still do them.

Do you go alone or do have someone with you?

I always have someone with me. It could be a family member, friend or someone from the team but no security. When someone recognises me I oblige for pictures. I ask them to come aside and take pics.

What are the new things you experienced on this trip to Switzerland? Did you always enjoy travelling?

Travelling for training is different where you are focused and have targets to achieve. Travel for leisure is different and there is no pressure. You can just relax and have a good time. We tried skydiving, canyon swinging, and paragliding and had a helicopter ride. None of my friends or family members had been to Switzerland before. For one of my friends, it was his first overseas trip and straight to Switzerland. Their experience was great.

You have not forgotten people who have helped you early on in your career. Your first coach Jaiveer has now become part of your family, isn’t it?

Since my childhood, we have been visiting each other’s homes regularly. Sometimes he would come over and sometimes I would go. We are like family now. It feels so nice to be together for such a long time. I feel very comfortable with him. It isn’t like a coach-student relationship. He’s more like a senior or elder brother to me.

How much do you value these bonds that you have developed with people?

It’s not necessary that all my friends have to be big people in their fields or win medals. What is important is that they remain with you and treat you like they always did. We share childhood memories and bond over them. Now when I meet new people, it’s a little different. I am Neeraj Chopra, the Olympic gold medallist to them. Earlier I wasn’t even a district-level thrower and that is something people who have seen me back then only can remind me of.

Have you been able to give enough time to your family?

Whenever I go home people come from far off to visit me and I feel good about it. But earlier I could just sit at home and talk to my family till 2 in the morning, remembering old incidents and all. I still try to gather my family together and do that whenever I get time. Before Olympics, I could just run on the roads but I can’t do that anymore. These are small things. If I feel like going out for a jog I will go out anyway but people recognise me. They might say he’s just running outside to get his pictures clicked.

You have trained in a lot of different countries. What have you learnt about their culture?

My first training stint outside India was in Spala, Poland in 2016. Earlier, it was an occasional overseas training camp and I would spend most of the time in India. This time I started from Chula Vista in the US and then I went to Gloria and then to different countries across Europe. We plan our training trip according to the competition dates. For the World Championships, we reached Chula Vista two weeks before the event for training and to get accustomed to the timezone and weather.

Has your cooking improved? Heard you disturbed the smoke alarm while cooking in Germany.

It’s been a while since I have cooked something but I am pretty decent at it. We stayed in an apartment that had smoke alarms. We generally used to open the windows while cooking so that the smoke clears out. You know how in Indian food you first heat oil, and ghee and then add onions for a proper tadka. I think I forgot to open the window that day or maybe the exhaust wasn’t switched on. The moment I added onions there was some smoke and then alarms went off. We locked all the gates tight so that others don’t get disturbed by the sound. After that, we were more careful.

Now you are a brand ambassador for India on the global stage. So what are the changes you have had to make in your lifestyle to fit in this new role?

Now people know me at the international level. International athletes recognise me. I know I am representing my country so I try to put forward my thoughts and tell others about my culture. I try to interact well. The interviews in Europe are different. For them seeing thousands of people reaching the airport to receive me after the medal was something new. You won’t get to see this happen in other countries. It’s only in India. It’s love and the people here. Even though they couldn’t meet me in person they took their time out and came to the airport.

What are the other questions thrown at you in Europe?

They ask about my acting (ad shoots) and appreciate it. I tell them I didn’t know anything about acting and all when I started. If you’re acting, then might as well put in the effort and that’s what I tell them. Acting is challenging but I try. Their perspective on family is very different. Children move out when they are 17 or 18 and work but here they stay home even after they’re 35-40. They ask if you have to return the money parents spend on raising their children after they start earning. I tell them it’s different here. I think it’s only in our culture that even after growing up we live with our parents as kids.

Before you, our javelin record was at 82m and then you came and changed it. People must be wondering how a javelin star came out of India. Do they ask you about it?

Anderson Peters from Grenada… and other countries are excelling in javelin now. Arshad Nadeem from Pakistan has performed so well recently. These are countries that weren’t that great at javelin earlier. At Commonwealth we had Rohit Yadav, Manu DP and Annu Rani who won a medal. We are growing.

Did you speak to Nadeem after his 90plus throw in Pakistan?

I haven’t spoken to him yet. He must be busy. We will probably meet next year at the World Championships or Asian Games. And then I will congratulate him properly on his throw. It feels good that the competition around you is increasing and it will be more challenging now. I will push myself more.

How was it watching the CWG on TV?

I was in Germany at that time and was in rehab. I knew I had taken part in CWG before and have a gold. I had that satisfaction in my mind or else I would have been really upset that I had to skip an event that comes once in four years due to an injury. I accepted it, I wasn’t sad.

We see a lot of videos of your winning Olympic gold-winning throw on social media. But tell us about the part that we don’t get to see, the hard work behind it.

In videos, you only see the throw but there is a lot of toil behind it and that is the real challenge for us. We go to competitions when we are fit and give our best. But the real challenge happens when you have to push yourself daily in training and no one watches that. You have to wake up daily, work hard and then go back to bed. It’s a routine. Sometimes you ask yourself, “what am I even doing?” Especially when you are recovering from an injury, it feels weird. But there is a positive in you when you are training. Bed rest feels weird but training is fun.

How do you keep your self-control and refrain from eating unhealthy?

This time I have maintained it. After the Olympics, I lost control and (gained weight). Now I am controlling but in training, it happens automatically, you don’t feel like eating unhealthy. I know if I eat a paratha or something the coach will make me pay for it during training the next day. Only if you control yourself you can get good results.

Ishan, your physio, says you have become more aware of your body after surgery. You ask them about the training routine and also if you aren’t feeling good. How did that awareness come in?

Injuries have taught me and then I have been training for such a long time that I know my body better. I know what would be good for my body and what won’t suit me. If my coach makes a plan or my physio makes me do some drill that I don’t think would work at that time, I tell them frankly. The best thing is that teamwork is really good. We listen to each other and work properly and that is helping me a lot.

Your coach Dr Klaus Bartonietz is a cheerful character. How is it working under him?

Dr Klaus ek mazedar aadmi hai (is a fun person). During training, we are very serious but as soon as we wrap up we share jokes and pull pranks on each other. I sometimes sneak from behind and poke his tummy and he gets startled for a moment. For his age, he is very energetic and positive. He is always happy and occupied with something. Whenever we trained outside he made sure he explored the local area and went on treks alone. We sometimes joke saying maybe he’ll go missing and wanders into the woods alone. A wild animal could whisk him away. Once he went solo on the hills in Chula Vista and came back after 10 hours! He never sits in one place and even during training he never asks for a chair. Coaching is also a very tough job and he does it well. Ishan also helps me a lot.

Ahead of Tokyo, you pulled out of the competition since you weren’t feeling well and then went on a trek with your team, no?

After taking part in Kuortane Games I was feeling a strain in my groin area. We went to Lucerne a couple of days later and after training, I didn’t feel good. I was drained as well and then I told my physio and coach. They told me we should focus on the Olympics and then we planned to just explore Lucerne. We left early in the morning and roamed around the hills and came back late at night. It was great fun.

You share about Indian culture with people you meet in Europe. Is there something you observed in their culture that you liked?

They respect privacy. Wherever I travelled around they understood it and let me be. Our people will just grab hold of you and say, “kya haal hai bhai (how are you doing?)” They feel it’s their right since we are from the same country. It’s actually good. I am also from this country so I am used to it and I don’t mind it at all. Parents of athletes are more aware there. They know the sport and they see it from a different perspective. Parents guide their kids properly from the very beginning. Coaches know what sport to start with. The thing I like the most is that even small countries have stadiums all over for kids to play and train. That’s something that has to change here gradually for better results. If a lot of people train with good facilities it is natural that a few of them will go on to become world-class athletes.

Your diet during training must be very strict. No parathas or Lassi

Yeah, no chai. We sometimes eat at Indian restaurants. But it’s mostly boiled food, salad, and fruit. Then you have to eat non-veg as well – chicken, fish and eggs. It’s a sports centre so they prepare food that is best for athletes. You have a lot of options like yoghurt and berry.

Are there any food items you crave but have to refrain from having?

When we were in Turkey, sweets like baklava were so good but I couldn’t have them. If I really craved it I would have like just one piece in a week or two. Sweets were kept on the counter every day. Don’t know if they were kept there to test the athletes. They kept so many varieties of sweets that it is a huge challenge for athletes to stay away. I and the coach don’t even look at it while we walk past. Cause if we do we might pick up a few.

Do you think there is the pressure of expectations on you now? You said expecting gold from you each time you compete is not practical

I had a silver in the World Championships and some said I didn’t focus properly since I’m doing advertisements. You can’t win gold every time. You are competing against the world’s best athletes and it’s very challenging. I am satisfied with this result. I just think about competing, results are not in my hands. I just want people to encourage us and not say things like you have to always get gold.

Do you sometimes look back and think what you would be doing today had you not pedalled that Atlas cycle to the stadium every day for training, as a 10-year-old?

I think about it and it motivates me even today. If I hadn’t gone to the stadium back then or would have let my doubts creep in and just stayed home or played with other kids, I wouldn’t be where I am today. You have to come out of your comfort zone to achieve something. And it doesn’t happen overnight. It took me 10-11 years to reach here and the journey has been good so far.

Top athletes like Federer and Sachin speak about entering their zone. What is the zone for you?

It happens automatically for me. I don’t have to put in the extra effort. The moment I enter the stadium I enter the zone. The adrenaline and everything kick in. I come into the zone easily and that is why I think I have been consistent so far.

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