Olympics

How Neeraj Chopra’s videos and one-time coach took Manu from ‘mediocre’ to the top

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When he threw the javelin 82.46m on Sunday in Thiruvananthapuram, DP Manu did a few things beyond winning a gold medal at the Indian Grand Prix. Competing in his first competition of the season, the 21-year-old from Kuppagoda village near Belur, Karnataka recorded the second best throw this season and leapfrogged into fourth place in the all-time best list of Indian javelin throws (topped by Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra).

And he’s also justified coach Kashinath Naik’s decision to take a punt on a ‘mediocre’ thrower from a part of the country with almost no tradition in the throws event four years ago.

Naik is, by his own admission, a difficult man to impress. The first Indian to win a javelin medal at the Commonwealth Games (bronze in 2010), he was also Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra’s first coach and has worked with Olympian Shivpal Singh and World finalist Devinder Kang – all with personal bests well above 80m.

Yet in 2018 when Naik heard of a 17-year-old who had thrown the javelin just 66.33m, he says he knew he had to find out more. « I was looking at this result sheet from the Khelo India U-20 championships and there was this thrower from Karnataka who had thrown 66m, » recalls Naik. It wasn’t the throw that impressed Naik. « A 66m throw is nothing in javelin. At an elite level it’s a mediocre mark, » he says. (There were 641 athletes in 2018 with a better throw than Manu).

What intrigued Naik was his birthplace. « There’s a belief that athletes in the throwing events need a lot of power and that’s only found in North India, » says Naik. Across Indian throwing events – the shotput, hammer throw, javelin and discus – the very best athletes with only a couple of exceptions (Naik himself, for one) tend to be from Punjab, Haryana and UP.

« Manu was from Karnataka. In the south, the focus is on the track. There’s no support, no facilities, no coaches even for the javelin throw. If someone had done 67m, it’s purely out of natural talent. I know he had to be good, » says Naik.

Manu was brought to the Army Sports Institute in Pune, where Naik was coaching. A few things stood out for him. « He was really skinny. But he was tall – 185 cm – and was really explosive. He had a standing broad jump of 3.10m. That was very impressive, » recalls Naik. And then there was his reach, the distance from the fingertips to the shoulder. The greater the reach, the more power and extension in the throw was Naik’s theory. « Neeraj Chopra was 181cm tall and his reach was about 82 cm – about 4-5 cm more than average people his size. Manu is 185cm tall and his reach was 86 cm. So I knew he was built for the javelin, » he says .

For his part, Manu had no expectation to be a javelin thrower. « We are a family of coffee farmers. So that was what I was doing also, » he says. He loved to play sports – mostly volleyball. It was in 2014 at a district sports meet that he was first handed a bamboo javelin by his school PT coach and told to go throw. « I had no idea how to throw but I still managed around 38m, » he says.

He realized he enjoyed it but there was no infrastructure in his village and district or, later, in college. « I would try and copy what I could from watching YouTube videos. »

One such video was that of Neeraj Chopra, when he won the Junior World Championships in 2016. « That was the first time I’d seen him throw. Back then I was throwing around 60m and I wondered what he would be like to throw as much as he did, » he recalls.

His career progressed once he’d come under Naik’s wing and joined the Army as a havildar. « We focused on getting stronger him and faster and refining his technique. He wasn’t getting the right kind of diet so I had him eat lot of ghee and peanut butter. He was only 70kg when he joined the Army and now he’s around 85kg , » says Naik.

Manu’s performances had plateaued over the past couple of years – he says his training was affected by the pandemic – but Naik wasn’t worried.

Naik says he never tried to push Manu too hard. « I’ve seen a lot of athletes in India push their bodies beyond what they should and then they break down. I’ve seen a lot of foreign coaches do that to Indian athletes too. Manu is someone who will keep working if you let him. He’s not even gone home for leave since the end of the last season. I’ve always have to make sure Manu takes a step back if I think he’s pushing himself more than he needs to. »

Ahead of the Indian Grand Prix though, Naik was once again confident that Manu would breach the 80m mark. « In the practice sessions we were doing he was touching 83.5m. I knew that he just needed to be in the right frame of mind and he would get it in a competition too, » he says.

Indeed while he crossed 80m twice on Sunday, Manu believes he could have done more. « I think I lost my technique. When I was making my throw, I was falling over too much to my left side and because of that the javelin was going too high rather than straight. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I was really pumped up at that time which is why I wasn’t able to correct that mistake, » he says.

Having qualified for the Commonwealth and Asian Games, he’s looking to correct those mistakes as the season progresses. He’s hopeful of meeting Chopra in the international field too. « I’ve met him a few times in Pune and he’s always told me to work hard. It will be great if I can compete with him, » he says.

While he’s now looking to perform at the international level, Manu says there are more like him in the hitherto untapped part of the country. « I don’t think I’ll be the only good thrower from Karnataka or South India. There are so many more talented players over there but they don’t get that opportunity or resources. The way Neeraj changed a lot of perspectives of how people saw throwers from India, I also hope there will be many more throwers from Karnataka who will come up now. »

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