After Neeraj Chopra won the gold yesterday, I wanted to speak to him. I asked Wayne Lombard, the fitness coach who has worked with both Neeraj and me, to patch my call through today because I knew his phone wouldn't be working. Wayne told me that Neeraj had only got to bed at three in the morning but that he'd eventually connect the two of us.
At 6 a.m., I got a call from Wayne's number. I thought it would be Wayne but it was Neeraj himself on the line. I jumped off my bed, washed my mouth and shouted at the Olympic champion on the other end of the video call. "Arre Neeraj kaise kaise call kiya! (Wow, Neeraj I can't believe you're calling)" It was pretty awkward.
We just talked about how he did in the competition. He asked about my mother and I did the same. He started talking about how he expected Johannes Vetter (his main rival) to throw further in the competition. I said forget Vetter - apna batao kya ho raha hain (just tell me about yourself). And he said achha lag raha hain (I'm feeling good) and then he started going through every throw.
Here's the new Olympic champion, he wasn't talking about what he was going to do next, about the glory and the fame and the media. The only thing he talked about was the javelin world. The only thing on his mind was just what could he do to get better. It didn't even seem to matter to him that he was the Olympic champion.
I was giving him every chance to talk about just how great it was, just how much media coverage he was getting. But the only thing he was talking about was that his block wasn't going that well and, but for that, he could have thrown a lot further. It was such a simple answer but a perfect indicator of why he is Olympic champion. He is obsessed by the process. That's what drives him.
The first time I met Neeraj Chopra was at the doping control room in Hyderabad in 2015, where we were competing in the Junior Federation Cup Athletics Championships. I was waiting, with Haryana's Ajay Kumar, to give my urine sample when a chubby looking teenager walked in: decent build, childlike smile and long hair like John Abraham in the film Dhoom.
Ajay instantly recognized him, and they started conversing in Haryanvi, which at that time was gibberish to me. While I was trying to figure out who he was, he started talking to me as if we were old friends. He told me how he loved my technique over the bar, congratulated me on my recent successes and said he thought I was a genuine contender at some point for a medal at the senior level internationally. I thanked him and played along, trying to keep up with the conversation while trying to still figure out who he was.
The moment he left, Ajay asked me, "Tujhe pata hai yeh kaun hai (do you know who he is)? Neeraj Chopra ka naam suna hai (have you heard of Neeraj Chopra)?" Of course I had heard Neeraj Chopra's name and I knew he was an upcoming javelin thrower who used to break meet records occasionally, but that was about it. I was expecting a taller, leaner, more athletic looking individual. I was certainly not expecting to see a chubby John Abraham doppelganger.
Fast forward a few months. Neeraj and I were on the same flight to Guwahati for the 2016 South Asian Games. I was 17, Neeraj 18. We were the two youngest athletes on the team, and this was also our first senior international competition representing India together. Neeraj knew the whole team because he lived and trained at the national camp with the senior athletes. I, on the other hand, was the awkward kid who'd made the team but always felt like I didn't belong there; the only time I had seen these athletes I was about to fly with was on television.
I was a little starstruck and chose the convenient option of putting on my headphones and finding a secluded window seat to avoid conversation. That was when I spotted Neeraj entering the plane - he had chopped off his locks and had barely any hair left on his head. I waved at him, hoping he would recognise me and come sit next to me. If I can recall correctly, I was sitting somewhere in row 6 or 7 and it took him 15 minutes to get from the entrance to row 6. He was having a little chat with literally every single athlete! I couldn't help but wonder how he knew everyone on the plane. Not just their name but where and when he'd previously met them.
Once he sat down, he started telling me how excited he was to compete for the country and win a medal at the SAF Games. I asked him why he'd cut his hair and he told me that he'd done it to focus on his javelin throwing. I gave him a baffled look and with a sheepish grin on his face, he said: "Yaar Tejaswin, kya batau bhai galti ho gai. Naai ne kuch zyada hi chote kar diye. (It was a mistake - the barber cut off too much!)"
The next two and a half hours we talked about only track and field. I was delighted to finally meet a nerd like myself, who was equally immersed in the sport and loved the nitty-gritty associated with it.
Before we proceed further, let me say this: anyone who has ever had a conversation with Neeraj Chopra knows that after you are done talking with him, you feel like you are the 10th incarnation of Vishnu who is about to save the world from invaders. If not an Olympic javelin thrower, he could have become the world's greatest hype man. Whoever you are, Neeraj can make you realise and believe things you never thought were humanly possible. Before the flight I was nervous and awkward about the competition but after chatting with him I felt like a lion, liberated and ready to conquer the world.
The SAF Games was a huge success for everyone. Neeraj went on to win the gold and broke the games record and I took a silver at my first senior international competition. But for me, this was more: it was the beginning of a relationship between two very contrasting individuals from very different walks of life - I'm born and brought up in Hauz Khas, a posh part of South Delhi, and Neeraj is from a small village near Panipat - motivating and pushing each other to do better while having fun.
We became even better friends over fried rice and matka kulfi. We had both been signed up by JSW and in the summer of 2017 were staying together in the same room in Bangalore, where some experts were doing physical tests on us. I was a vegetarian back then and although he had started eating meat, he wouldn't eat it in front of me since we were roommates. As a compromise, on the first day we decided we'd get a green salad, a fried rice and two matka kulfis. He loved it. And then for the next ten days all we ate was fried rice and matka kulfi. That's all we ate. We'd just say dinner, and then we'd get fried rice and matka kulfi. I got sick of it eventually but he loved it.
Our friendship remained strong even after I went to college in the USA and he stayed in India. The beauty of the friendship was that we weren't obligated to call each other every week. Sometimes we called each other after three months and it was as if we had never been separated. We'd just talk for hours and hours and then go another several weeks without a call. Sometimes we wouldn't even call. We'd just send voice notes to each other. We'd have hour long conversations with voice notes.
Rewind back to that test session at JSW Sports. By now Neeraj was the world junior champion and record-holder. I hadn't met him in a while and he had trimmed down considerably, looked physically fit and stronger. And his hair had grown back to full length.
We were out on the athletics track before the tests; as we walked, I started asking him questions about how life had been for him after the record, how he felt being the only athlete from India to have won gold at the world junior championships.
While we talked, I noticed something strange. Neeraj would take a few steps, then stop and stamp the ground, then walk again for a few more steps and stamp the ground again. This continued for a while, and I felt like he wasn't hearing my questions. I finally asked him, "Yaar ye kar kya rahe ho beech sadak me? Theek hai na sab (What are you doing, is everything okay)?" To which he quickly looked up at me and said, "Yaar block ki practice kar raha hu. Bas thoda sa block thik ho jata toh 87-88 ki throw kar sakta tha (I'm practicing the block - if I can improve it a bit, I can throw 87-88 metres)."
I was reminded of that incident in 2017 today when I spoke to Neeraj. He's obsessed with his sport.
It's not that he isn't aware of the expectations and pressures on him. At the end of our call, I asked him when he was coming back and if I should meet him when he landed in India. He said there was no way that would happen since there were sure to be 10000 people at the Airport. We will make some plan to meet eventually.
This one line answered my questions, and would answer all my future questions. It encapsulated his passion, dedication, will and perseverance to his craft. The bubbly personality outside the track and the killer instinct inside it is what separates him from the rest.
This may be the first ever Olympic medal for us in track and field but if I know Neeraj, he will be thinking about that one thing that could get him closer to the 90m mark and another step closer to the Olympic record. He may say that he is about to take a break to rest up. But I guarantee you that a week or so from today, you will see him back again in a park or at the track warming up just for the sake of it.
I must admit it's a bit strange to be friends with an Olympic champion. It's different from how it used to be. We were just friends before. But he's risen from friend to someone I look up to, someone I admire. He's elevated himself.
(Tejaswin Shankar is the national record holder in the men's high jump)