Gold medalist Neeraj Chopra on his sporting journey, shopping indulgences and a travel bucket list

They say, “Life is a journey that must be travelled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations.” Neeraj Chopra’s journey to the top of the Olympic podium may have involved many a bumpy road and diverse accommodations, but it has always been an inspired one. It all began at the age of 13, when, as a pudgy boy, he’d take the bus from Khandra, a village in Haryana, to the Sports Authority of India facility in Panipat, located about 15 km away. “I’d return from school and immediately change into my exercise gear and head to the bus stand,” he says. Chopra recalls waiting for long spells for the bus since it was an hourly service. The return would be more complicated. With frequency reduced at night, he’d either hitch a ride on a bike or with a tractor driver. The arduous lifestyle—that also included a 1.5 km walk from the bus stand to the SAI centre, reaching home sometimes as late as midnight—didn’t vex him. “I am glad I never questioned why I needed to put myself through all of this? I just happily went about this daily routine,” he explains.

He learned a lot in the process too. Patience is necessary, as is self-belief. “You should love the work that you are doing and do it with all your heart,” says Chopra, who moved to Panipat later to focus on sports. “It automatically becomes easier to do.”

© Provided by India Today Outfit: Louis Vuitton: Striped Monogram Workwear Denim Shirt; Neon Man Sleeveless Sweatshirt

GOING PLACES

At SAI, Chopra had plenty of disciplines to pick, but it was throwing the javelin the farthest which gave him instant joy. Less than two years after choosing the field event, the teenager was flying high. He represented India in the World Youth Championships in 2013, held in Donetsk, Ukraine. “I remember our coaches asking the contingent where we were all headed for? I put my hand up and said ‘Don’t ask’,” said Chopra with a laugh. “It was my first flight and I had a window seat. I spent more than half the journey just looking at the clouds and trying to see the ground below.” Since then, he has found his place in the stars and travel has become a virtual staple. Even though he enjoyed travelling, back then young Chopra didn’t have the luxury to explore places on his own while competing abroad. That’s not the case anymore though.

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Although the rigour and discipline of his practice remains unchanged, Chopra has learnt to let his hair down, balancing a demanding schedule with the unhurried luxury of shopping. He is particularly fond of beautiful clothes and shoes. On a recent visit to Delhi’s Emporio mall, he headed to the Louis Vuitton store to get one of his favourites: an LV belt. But instead, ended up buying the pricier ankle-length shoes. Chopra has a soft spot for the brand’s bags too. His modest background— the son of a farmer—does make him reluctant to purchase something expensive, he adds. But then life has not been the same since the evening of August 8, 2021, when he became India’s first medal winner in athletics and only its second individual gold medallist. From state governments to top companies, everyone has been rewarding Chopra for his incredible feat. Money is no longer the deterrent it once was. His new-found fame has enabled him to fulfil some of his dreams, such as taking his mother on her first flight— a chartered one no less—to Vidyanagar Airport in Karnataka, to see him being honoured at the Inspire Institute of Sport.

© Provided by India Today Outfit: Louis Vuitton: Damier Denim Trucker Jacket; End Goal LV Crewneck; Accessory: LV Plane Necklace

TRAVELLING COMPANIONS

Those who have followed Chopra’s career since early days knew he was a serious contender all along. Chopra had started making waves on the junior circuit, becoming the first Indian to be a world junior champion in athletics, setting a new junior world record in the process. Since proving himself on the world circuit, the 23-year-old athlete has made it a point to pencil-in a break while competing and training abroad. “As athletes, we have to squeeze in our holidays in the recovery period we get amidst the heavy training,” he says. He made a recent trip, just prior to the Olympic Games, to Lausanne, Switzerland, where Chopra skipped a competition and got two days to discover the city with his coach and physiotherapist.

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A new companion on his travels is a Sony A7 mirrorless camera. Passionate about photography, he estimates he has over 10,000 photographs on his phone alone. “There are few photos of mine and more of the places I have visited,” he says. Much as he enjoys being trigger happy, he believes that it’s important to register the moment and savour the memory rather than simply shooting away to store for the future, overlooking the present by default.

© Provided by India Today Outfit: Louis Vuitton: Everyday LV Crewneck; Archive Pocket Blouson; Slim Stretch Denim Pants; Shoes: LV Trainer Sneaker

Despite his new-found love for photography, back in Tokyo he had no time to use the camera. “In the Games village I was completely focussed on the competition,” he says. Ever since he returned with a gold, Chopra has been hopping from one felicitation ceremony, VIP get-together and promotional activity to another. He can scarcely remember the last time he went on a holiday. “I want to plan a week-long break with friends,” he says. There are plenty of places within India he is keen to discover. He has not been to the Taj Mahal yet. He’s drawn to the hills. Also on the bucket list is a trip to God’s own country, Kerala. Having decided to skip all competitions for the rest of the year, Chopra hopes to take some time out for himself. He has definitely earned it. Here’s hoping the next part of his journey is just as eventful.

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