“Some of the athletes simply accept that they are under pressure ahead of an event. Others just shut themselves out. I have never said that I don’t feel the pressure when performing on as big a platform as the World Championships. It’s natural of an athlete to feel it. But, the real deal is to have that clarity of thoughts and stay calm even during a challenging situation. If we start burdening ourselves with the mountain of expectations, it will disturb our rhythm and situational awareness. If you fail to achieve the desired distance in two or three of your javelin throws, your mind and body will become frustrated. The pressure could lead to a situation where you lose your control over your technique and start committing mistakes by just using the force in your throws. Javelin is a technical game and you need to keep that command over your technique,” Neeraj told TOI in an exclusive virtual interaction from Eugene, Oregon.
“I would look to compete at the World Championships with a pressure-free mindset. I won’t like to bring that aura of invincibility with me that ‘oh, I am an Olympic champion’. I will put my natural game into play and give my 100 percent on the field. For every athlete, the target is always to win the gold. It’s the same for me. I am confident about my preparations,” the reigning CWG and Asian Games champion added.
Neeraj’s start to his much delayed athletics season has been nothing short of exceptional. Out of competitive action for almost 10 months since his Tokyo Olympics heroics, the javelin thrower returned to the circuit with a national record-setting 89.30m throw at the Paavo Nurmi Games in Turku on June 14 to finish runner-up to Finnish Oliver Helander, who produced his lifetime best throw of 89.83m to clinch the gold. Later, he battled past extremely windy and challenging weather conditions to secure gold at the Kuortane Games in Finland on June 18 with a throw of 86.89m. Two weeks later came the biggest throw of Neeraj’s career. The 24-year-old launched the spear to a personal-best distance of 89.94m for the second-place finish at the Wanda Diamond League in Stockholm on June 30 to improve upon his national record. Disappointingly, he missed breaching the elusive 90m-mark by mere six centimetres, for which he has set his sights on during the Worlds meet and the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“It would have been great to breach the mark at the Diamond League itself. I was merely six centimetres short and this thought did cross my mind. Distance is not something in my control…I can only throw the javelin with full force giving my 100 percent. I know I am very close to achieving the 90m-mark and sooner or later, it will happen. I want this hunger to keep burning in me.”
Has it become a mental barrier? “To be honest, yes it is. In javelin, I feel every 10m distance is a barrier. And, it’s not with javelin throw alone. In long jump, you have the eight-metre barrier to break. The athletes who jump beyond eight metre feel satisfied from inside. In 100m, a sprinter would like to run under 10s. In every sport, there’s a mental block which you want to achieve at some point of your career. I am competing in big athletics competitions like Diamond League or the World Championships with world-class javelin throwers in attendance. I’ll look to breach the 90m-mark at the Worlds, that’s the target. It could be 91m or 92m as well. So, let’s see,” stated the former world junior champion.
At the Worlds, Neeraj would be challenged by reigning world champion, Grenadian Anderson Peters (PB 93.07m), Olympic silver medalist Czech Jakub Vadlejch (90.88m), Finland’s Oliver Helander (89.83m), Germany’s Julian Weber (84.91m) and Trinidadian Keshorn Walcott (88.70m), among others. However, the big name missing from the competition will be 2017 world champion and 2019 bronze medallist Johannes Vetter. The German, second on the all-time list with 97.76m, is out with a shoulder injury.
“Things wouldn’t have different for me had Vetter been there. He has, of late, been struggling with injuries. After Tokyo, I don’t know much about his progress. He might compete at the European Championships in Munich (from August 11-21). His presence would have made the field stronger here. But, there are other javelin throwers as well who are in great shape and form. So, I believe the competition will be really tough and intense. I am concentrating on giving my best,” he said.
Neeraj also talked about the non-inclusion of his good friend and fellow athlete, high jumper Tejaswin Shankar, in the Indian athletics contingent for the Birmingham CWG and said he should have been added to the 36-member track and field squad based on his impressive performance at the NCAA meet in the USA.
“I did have a word with Tejaswin (after the selection drama). In my opinion, he should have been picked for the CWG. He had been performing well at the NCAA meets. I don’t know much about the selection process, the rules or the entry system. All I can say is that I am sad for him. We must ensure that the deserving athletes get their chance to compete. They should be rewarded for their hard work,” he signed off.