New Delhi: In October 2019, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) had announced javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra's participation at the 59th National Open Athletics Championships in Ranchi with a flourish. "Back in business, everyones super star, the one and only Neeraj Chopra is all set to take the field at the 59th National Open Senior Athletics Championships," it said on its social media handles.
Less than 24 hours later, it emerged that Neeraj had pulled out of the meet, with his team deciding that he is not ready to return to action yet.
Neeraj had been out since November 2018, the year which cemented him as one of the prospects to win a medal for India at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics thanks largely to his gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, the latter with a national record throw of 88.06 metres.
It was after the Asian Games that he had felt a discomfort in his elbow. A painful inflammation of the joint soon followed which led to Neeraj being able to do only light and short throws.
He had to undergo treatment and then rehabilitation, first at the National Institute of Sport (NIS) in Patiala and then in Potchefstroom, South Africa. This was also the time when then coach Uwe Hohn complained of the lack of proper support for throwers at NIS which led to delays worth several weeks in Neeraj's rehabilitation process.
Hohn spoke about the fact that the NIS had no expert physiotherapist who could tend to Neeraj, the lack of good equipment and the delay in the travel to Potchefstroom, alongwith a cancelled trip to Australia.
"The delay of this camp and the cancellation of the camp we had planned before was, especially for him (Chopra), very negative. We are six weeks behind schedule because for six weeks Neeraj could not train like the way I wanted him to train because of the elbow. Even in South Africa we needed about two weeks for Neeraj to get much better," Hohn had told Indian Express.
Eventually, it turned out that Neeraj will need to go under the knife and the surgery was done in May, 2019. A lengthy period of rebuilding and rehabilitation followed, first in Mumbai and then at JSW's Inspire Institute of Sport campus in Bellary, Karnataka.
In this time, he also parted ways with Hohn and started training with bio-mechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz. In August, he moved back to NIS.
"He was training continuously at Patiala with Klaus Bartonietz from August to November. In November they went to South Africa," Radhakrishnan Nair, the deputy chief national coach for AFI, told IANS.
It was during this period that Neeraj felt that he was ready to get back into competition. He wanted to compete at the 2019 Athletics World Championships which was held in September and later at the National Championships in Ranchi in October. On both occasions, he was dissuaded by his team.
"He wanted to participate in the World Championships and then at the National Championships in Ranchi. But we directed him not to participate in any of those competitions. He was confident of doing 82 and 83 metres but we did not allow him because of the injury," said Nair.
Neeraj's action, which he had developed on his own watching Youtube videos, had to be tweaked so as to ensure that the elbow injury does not recur. "His coach has brought a little change in his technique and improved his speed also," said Nair. However, at the time, the support staff felt that Neeraj was yet to adjust to it, which meant that in a competitive environment, he could revert to his older action.
"He felt that he was fit and was requesting the federation to let him participate in the World Championship and later nationals. Both we declined because we wanted him to fully recover. Now he is fully recovered and has managed to qualify for the Olympics," said Nair.
Watching the World Championships would have left Neeraj with a feeling of 'what-if'. The gold medal throw from Grenada's Anderson Peters had been 86.89m; well below the mark of 88.06m he had managed at the Asian Games.
The throw that Neeraj managed on Wednesday at a meet in Potchefstroom, which earned him a spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, was 87.86m. It was his first competitive event after the long layoff.
Nair said that Neeraj's next big stop will be at the Federation Cup in that is scheduled to start on April 10. "Competition season for international starts only in May. He will be competing in the Federation Cup in April after that he will be going for some European competitions," he said.