It's a fine line, at the topmost level of sport, between giving up and pushing on. Sometimes all it takes is a moment. Or, in Kishore Jena's case, a tear-filled 3am phone call to his father - that's what got him out of thinking of giving up the javelin. Several months and several top-level successes later, he is India's second-best javelin thrower and has booked his ticket for next year's Paris Olympics.
It all seemed a long way away in July. Cooped up in his hotel room in Beirut, Kishore was tearful, contemplating quitting the sport. He'd just competed in the Lebanon National Championships that evening and won it - but with a distance of 78.96m, much less than his then-personal best of 82.87. It did nothing for him in the larger scheme of things.
He dialled up his father Keshab, a paddy farmer in Kothasahi village near Puri in Odisha. "I told him that I was doing my best but just was not improving," Kishore told ESPN in a chat on Wednesday. "I had been away from home for so long but had nothing to show for it. He told me to give it one last shot, saying 'You've been training towards this for so long, compete in the next event and if it works out then great, if not then come back home'."
Kishore then flew to Colombo for his next event with this thought: if I do well, I will continue my career as an athlete. If not, I go back home. Six days after that phone call, Kishore produced his personal best throw: 84.38m. That throw earned him a spot at the World Championships. And it did more: It gave India another javelin star and, most importantly, it restored his self-belief.
After Colombo, Kishore did this:
Finished in the top 6 of the World Championships
Qualified for the Paris Olympics
Won silver at the Asian Games
Became India's best javelin thrower since Neeraj Chopra
The turnaround was part of a plan drawn up by his coach Samarjeet Singh Malhi after the Colombo event. "We went to Sri Lanka with a 'karo ya maro' (do or die) mindset. We were off the rankings for the Worlds - he was ranked #42 - and had no other choice but to do well at the Colombo event. After that, he came to #36 and qualified for the Worlds. And that boosted his confidence and mental approach."
The plan, Malhi says, was for Kishore to peak around the Worlds and Asian Games in August-September. "Our main focus was to have him do his best at the Asian Games. We reduced his workload considerably, went easier on the weights and focussed more on speed work. We were able to get the best out of him by tweaking his workouts to ensure maximum performance."
What also motivated Kishore through this was winning but recording his personal best on each occasion. "I honestly had no target in mind for the Worlds, I just wanted a PB because I had gotten there after so much difficulty [visa issues meant he reached Budapest two days before his event]. My name was not even in the Asian Games team at that point but then I made the cut. At the Asian Games, the target was to qualify for Paris. I felt that if I did that then the medal might also come along with PB. And that's exactly what happened."
And then there was that gesture from Neeraj. "We met in Neeraj bhai's room after the Worlds final and he gave me a tiny round piece of metal. It said 'Road to Paris 2024.' This is a small token that's given to athletes who have qualified for the Olympics and Neeraj got it at the Worlds. He gave it to me and said 'Jena, yeh rakhna. Asian Games main accha karna aur humein Paris jaana hai [Keep this with you, you need to do well at the Asian Games and we both have to go to the Paris Olympics.]' That was a very special moment for me because such a big athlete gave me something so dear to him...that really motivated me to do better."
Kishore's performance at the Asian Games, where for a few minutes he led Neeraj in the final [a first in Neeraj's recent career] and won silver, brought him into the national conversation. That's when people got to know his back story: the youngest of seven siblings, his father was unable to work on his farm after an accident in 2018. The family income dried up and they were forced to sell parts of their ancestral land to make ends meet. Kishore felt the need to settle his family's debts and ensure they settled down.
He was able to meet that goal after the Asian Games when the Odisha government awarded him a prize of Rs. 1.5 crore and also promised to take care of all his training expenses ahead of the Paris Olympics.
His successes notwithstanding, Kishore keeps his feet on the ground. "I don't feel like I have achieved something monumental. Life has changed a bit, but I am the same Kishore I was. It feels strange sometimes when I see the interest around me," he says with a sheepish grin.
Like Neeraj, the fact that Kishore stays true to his roots is what sets him apart. It's also why his username on Zoom remains "Jena 84.38m".