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‘Neeraj is six weeks behind schedule’

From left: Javelin throwers Shivpal Singh, Rajinder Singh, Neeraj Chopra and Sahil Siwal during time-off at their camp at Potchefstroom.

Undergoing treatment for an elbow injury under a renowned physiotherapist in South Africa, India’s star javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra is expected to be fit by early March, giving him barely five months to prepare for the World Championship. This far-from-ideal preparation, according to his German coach Uwe Hohn, is because of Chopra’s treatment getting delayed due to lack of an expert physiotherapist at their base, the National Institute of Sport in Patiala.

“In India, there is not much support for throwers. We have one masseur in Patiala for the boys and one woman for the girls. But their knowledge is not good. Neeraj has his own personal physio, who is with him all the time. But he wasn’t able to fix the elbow problem so we were pretty lucky to find a good physio here (Potchefstroom). She fixed the issues of Neeraj’s injury during the first 2-3 weeks and even for the other throwers here. She is working with top international and South African athletes and knows what javelin throwers need,” Hohn told The Indian Express from Potchefstroom.

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Why a tweak in technique is important

At the camp in Potchefstroom, the coach is fine-tuning Neeraj Chopra’s technique to enable him to throw the spear to longer distances as well as reduce the possibility of shoulder and elbow injuries in the future. Neeraj didn’t have a specialised coach during his formative years and also picked up his throwing technique by watching YouTube videos. It is his ‘low-throwing-arm-position’, which puts stress on his elbow and shoulder, according to coach Uwe Hohn. The changes can’t be done overnight because at times, it can mean unlearning what an athlete has got comfortable with. Coach Hohn is also aiming for improved acceleration and a higher release speed. “We are working on his body position after landing from cross step (the final two-three strides before release). He needs to land in a more sideways position with the upper body further back to get a longer pull on the javelin, which should lead to a higher release speed and better results. We are also working on a higher arm position which is a positive to prevent elbow injuries and shoulder problems as well. We are on a good way but still a long way to go,” Hohn says.

Anita van der Lingen, the Potchefstroom-based physio, is helping Chopra overcome the elbow injury that affected his throwing ability since the middle of November. A quartet of male javelin throwers — comprising Rajinder Singh, Shivpal Singh, Sahil Silwal and Chopra — have been at the North-West University in Potchefstroom, a high altitude centre, since January. The training equipment, food and nutrition, medical support and physiotherapy is ‘very good’, according to Hohn, the only man to have thrown the javelin over 100 metres.

The delay in travelling to Potchefstroom, the cancellation of a planned camp (in Australia) and the absence of a good physio and equipment in Patiala — where the team is based when in India — has disrupted training schedules of Chopra and the other throwers.

“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 adds.

The longstanding injury is a result of Neeraj’s ‘low-arm’ technique, and it flared up in mid-November. A painful inflammation of the joint meant Chopra could only do ‘light and short throws’ and had to ‘adjust his weight training’. The throwers have to manage with a single masseur when they are in Patiala, who is not qualified to deal with top athletes, especially in a technical sport like javelin which puts a lot of pressure on the joints.

“We don’t have a physio and medical support in Patiala, but we have an Indian masseur. But the person does not have any knowledge about massage and javelin is a sport which is very hard on the body, especially the elbow, shoulder and the back, and it is very difficult without a good physio and a masseur. So when we come back to India we don’t have a good physio. Neeraj has a personal physio but what about the other throwers?” Hohn asks.

“He is not 100 per cent but he will get back to 100 per cent of his training by March when he will be fine. We plan to participate in competition in March in Potchefstroom.”

The coach’s reading of the root cause of the injury is the low position of Chopra’s throwing arm, something which he has been doing for a few years.

“His throwing arm was always a bit too low, so there was more stress on the elbow during almost every throw, which build up to an almost permanent inflammation in the elbow, which is painful and can lead to more serious injuries.”

In December, Hohn had complained about the delay in procuring equipment, insufficient support staff, poor diet, unimaginative planning and delay in clearance of foreign training trips, which were hampering Chopra’s training. In response, Union Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore had assured all support to Chopra and Hohn.

“We are cutting the bureaucratic procedures. I will be taking certain issues to the Cabinet to empower the Sports Authority of India to hire the best people. We want to expedite processes and get the best expertise to support these sportspersons,” Rathore said.

Hohn said that procuring training equipment has been in a state of limbo. “I made a list of equipment I wanted to improve the quality of the training as I started my job about 16 months ago. I adjusted after I worked a while in Patiala. I realised that we need a few more things. That equipment has still not come so far. Not one little thing. Except what I bought by myself because I also realised that I can’t wait forever. Time is running (out) and I otherwise have to wait after Tokyo (Olympics) to get all or maybe something, but that’s too late to get the right results so I had to start to buy myself.”

Stiff competition

The next 18 months will be a litmus test for Chopra, who will aim to land a medal at the Doha World Championships in September-October and the Tokyo Olympics a year later. He will also participate in the Diamond League series through the year and the Asian Athletics Championships in April. However, with three Germans throwing over 90 metres, Chopra has his task cut out.

“At the Asian Championships, Neeraj will compete, but it is not a major focus because it is a little competition to start the season and we are still a few weeks behind my planning for this year. The World Championships is the focus for 2019 but we will not risk our preparation for Tokyo. If it happens, it would be perfect, but we will not push too hard. You also have to see that the World Championships are at another level compared to the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.”

“Last year, we had three German throwers over 90m and in 2019, even one more German will be able to throw that far. We will try to win a medal at the World Championships and the Tokyo Games. But the level in javelin throwing is very, very high and probably the highest level ever during the last few years.”