It's an hour before the javelin final of the 2023 World Athletics Championships. Kishore Kumar Jena is feeling the nerves. It's his first major competition and he's about to go up against the 12 best throwers in the world. As he goes through his paces, a familiar voice reaches out: "Jena, aaja photo khichate hain [Jena, let's take a picture]."
Until that point, Jena was too nervous to ask Neeraj for a photo. "I wasn't able to say 'bhai aajao, photo lete hain [let's take a photo, brother]' but when he asked me, I felt really happy that such a big athlete wanted to take a picture with me," Jena tells ESPN from Patiala, his training base. "That little moment took away all my stress before the final".
Neeraj's mentoring continued during the event. "Neeraj spoke to me very calmly and when a couple of my throws did not go well, he said 'Don't worry, your best throw is yet to come.' It was motivating just to be around him," recalls Jena. Go back to the photos taken when Jena threw 84.77m and you'll see a line of men parallel to him. Amongst them is a bandana-clad, grey-overalls-wearing Neeraj intently watching on.
Those small gestures eased Jena's nerves and he exceeded expectations by finishing fifth at the Worlds, registering a new personal best of 84.77m along the way. So much so that even Timothy Herman, the nine-time Belgium national champion, wanted a picture with Jena.
Neeraj, as is now well known, had a direct role to play in Jena's trip to Budapest, by intervening in his delayed visa process. "As good an athlete he is, he is an even better human being," Jena says. "I never expected him to intervene and help me get my visa. That incident once again underlines what a great athlete he is and what an incredible human he is. As soon as he came to Budapest, we met in his room and had a nice chat."
Just heard that there are issues with Kishore Jena's VISA, preventing him from entering Hungary for the World C'ships. I hope the authorities are able to find a solution, as this is one of the biggest moments of his career. Let's do everything we can. ��@MEAIndia @DrSJaishankar
- Neeraj Chopra (@Neeraj_chopra1) August 17, 2023
A late bloomer, Jena pursued javelin seriously only in 2017, when he was around 22. He joined the national camp in Patiala in 2021 and that's when his career began to take off. Under the guidance of Samarjeet Singh Malhi, a former Asian Athletics Championship bronze medal winner, Jena toiled it out for two years before crossing the 80m mark earlier this year.
"We worked on his arm speed and angle of attack and I gave him the belief that he can become a proper javelin thrower," says coach Malhi. "He made all the changes I suggested and not once did he back-answer me or doubt what I said. His performance today is a result of that. He never doubted it for one minute."
Their bonding is what led to Jena's success, Malhi asserts. Jena concurs, "No coach can care for their student as he does, it's very hard to find a guru like him. Malhi coach and his wife take care of me like their own son - when I was sick I stayed in their house and they nursed me back to health. He takes care of my every need. I did not have a lot of money when I had to leave for Budapest and the coach gave me the money to travel," says Jena.
He adds, "He's not just a coach to me, he's family to me. My family also holds him in high regard and my mother keeps telling me 'Listen to what the coach says and don't disobey him' (laughs)."
Malhi went the extra mile by putting Jena through competition-day simulations to prepare him for the Worlds. "I asked him to visualize that he's walking into the stadium, that 60,000 fans are looking at him, and there are cheers all around. I would mimic the stadium announcer and say 'Kishore Kumar Jena, from India, up next' to give him a feel of the atmosphere there. He got disturbed a couple of times during this exercise but eventually, he got used to it. I wanted to prepare him for the atmosphere because I did not want him to be overawed by the surroundings in Budapest."
These sessions paid off and helped Jena throw the javelin further than he ever has. It cemented his spot as the fourth-best Indian javelin thrower ever and Asia's 3rd-best javelin thrower in 2023.
Next up is the Asian Games, later this month, where he will again face off against Neeraj. There, Jena will aim to qualify for the Paris Olympics by recording the automatic qualification mark of 85.50m. He's determined to do that, and happy to sacrifice a few glasses of lassi - his favourite drink but frowned upon by his coach - if he has to. As he says, "This [sports] is all I have, there's nothing else I can do and hence I want to give it my absolute best."