Touted as one of India's strongest bets for an Olympic medal, star javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra on Sunday said his build-up to the Games has been quite challenging given the lack of competitive exposure but he is trying to stay positive for the big event.
The mop-haired Commonwealth and Asian Games champion qualified for Tokyo throwing 87.86 meters last year and posted a personal best of 88.07 in March this year. An injury to his throwing arm and the COVID-19 crisis kept him sidelined for nearly two years but Chopra would be one of India's best medal prospects at the Games after addressing his technical issues.
Chopra said he has missed the "natural feeling" of being in a world-class field, except for one occasion, in the run up to the Games which opens on July 23 -- that one time was the Kuortane Games event in Finland on June 26 where he won a bronze with a performance of 86.79m in a star-studded field comprising, among others, Olympics gold favourite German Johannes Vetter, who won the event with a massive throw of 93.59m.
"I had a new experience in Finland. During the run-up, I felt the real experience of a top-level competition, the kind of natural feeling which gives you the best performance comes after you take part a lot of world class events," Chopra said from his training base at Upsala, Sweden during an online interaction.
"For me, that was the only time," he added.
Talking about the challenges that came with the restrictions that came into force because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chopra said he has tried to stay positive nonetheless.
"I did not get good international competitions when I wanted and there had to be several changes in training and competition schedule.
"But, I am in positive frame of mind because a lot depends on the performance of the day. I am just hoping to give my best and realise my dream of winning a gold for the country."
Chopra, who has pulled out of the June 13 Diamond League at Gateshead due to visa issues, has taken part in only three international events since June 10.
He won't participate in competitions anymore before travelling to Tokyo on July 26.
"Getting the UK visa (to take part at Gateshead) was difficult for Indians due to COVID-19 situation in India. So, I decided to miss the Diamond League. There is no time for competition now.
"I can have some intensity training for another week. After that I will have light training."
He said he was focusing on improving his technique.
"The performance in Finland was also not my best, there were technical issues, the height of the javelin was an issue. My javelin could not reach the venue that day and I could not use it. I had to use another javelin.
"At the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, the height of the javelin was an issue though I won gold in both. I am working on reducing the height of the javelin so that it can cover more distance."
Chopra says he has ironed out the kinks in his technique and found the optimal release angle ahead of the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games.
"Even at the (2018) Asian Games, I thought it was throwing it too high, which compromised my distance," the 23-year-old, who currently training in Sweden, told a news conference arranged by his sponsor JSW Sports.
"Another issue was my throw tended to veer to the left side, at times threatening to go beyond the foul lines.
"Every time the javelin veers, it's a waste of power. If the release angle is not right, you are not getting the maximum out of your throw.
"We identified these areas and addressed those issues. I can already see the improvement.
"If I get it right, my distance will further improve in Tokyo."
Chopra was happy with his training in Sweden, where he plans to increase the intensity before tapering two weeks before his event.
The thrower was largely keeping to himself and relaxing by listening to music or meditating.
"I also visualise my throws, I've already imagined how I'd perform in Tokyo," Chopra said.
"I imagine the arena and my throws. By the time I turn up, I'd have performed there several times even if it's only in my mind."