If not for some timely advice from his father over the phone at 3 am in July, Kishore Kumar Jena would have quit javelin even before the world could appreciate his talent.
Jena caught the eye of athletics followers when he took the lead in the Asian Games competition, forcing Olympic and World Champion Neeraj Chopra to dig deep and produce his best throw of the season to seal another gold medal.
The Asiad silver in October and a fifth-place at the World Championships a month earlier have turned around Jena’s fortunes. But all that wouldn’t have been possible without a long-distance interaction between a father and a son a few months earlier.
The phone conversation between Jena in Beirut and his father Keshab, a rice farmer, in Kothasahi village near Puri, was between a frustrated son and a wise father.
“At the Lebanon championships, I threw 78 metres (78.96m). I was crestfallen. I felt like my career was not going anywhere. I was crying till 2 am and then at around 3 am, I called my father and told him I felt like quitting the sport,” Jena told The Indian Express.
He says his father calmly told him to travel to Diyagama, his next stop for the Sri Lankan national championships. If there was no turnaround, Keshab told Jena, he could move on from javelin.
Jena decided to give javelin one final shot. In Sri Lanka, he topped the competition with 84.38 metres and booked a World Championship berth. His father went to a temple to pray that day.
“Sri Lanka was the most important competition of my life, it was a turning point for me. After that, I could go for the World Championships and then the Asian Games. After the competition in Lebanon, I threw 84 metres while training in Patiala. I had a good feeling suddenly. I was not tense in Sri Lanka, but wanted to do well. Because if I didn’t do well, I may have quit the sport,” Jena recalled.
Jena went from strength to strength. The 28-year-old improved his personal best to 84.77 metres during the final of the World Championships.
At the Asian Games, he did what no Indian had done before — give Chopra a run for his money. With 86.77 metres in the third round, Jena laid down the marker. Chopra, upset about his first throw not being measured and having to retake it — at the end of a long season — came up trumps with 88.88 metres. Jena’s fourth throw was 87.54 metres. Chopra and Jena, with the national flag draped over their shoulders, posed for photographs.
Jena says the 87.54m throw didn’t give him as much joy as 86.77m. “My aim was to qualify for the Paris Olympics. So when I threw 86-metres plus, I was so happy (85 metres is the qualifying standard). Happier than when I threw 87 metres.”
A 1-2 for India had Chopra gushing with excitement too. “It was a dream of mine that Indians should also dominate a javelin competition, like the Germans and Czech throwers have done. Finally, Indians are able to do it,” Chopra said a few days after the Asian Games. “Jena got me back in focus (after the fiasco of the first throw). I would like to thank Jena, who did his personal best but also pushed me.”
Jena has made big strides in the last 12 months. His personal best has improved from 78.05 metres to 87.54 metres since last October.
The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) believesJena is a medal hope at the Paris Olympics next year and have begun to hunt for a foreign coach for him. The AFI wants Jena to gain from a specialist — someone as competent as German biomechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz, Chopra’s coach.
Chopra also sees a bright future for Jena.
“The best thing about Jena is his rhythm on the runway. It is very good. If your rhythm is good, it can help with your throw. At the Asian Games… I watched him on the runway. Sometimes, it can go zigzag for me and when I start the cross-step, the speed is also affected. But Jena’s speed is good. His strength, technique and follow-through is also very good. He is very fast. The way he has improved this year, he has potential. Personally, I feel his blocking leg bends a bit, you can see it in videos too. If he works on that, he will improve further,” Chopra said this week.
Jena thanks Chopra for helping him shed his nerves — before the World Championships final and the Asian Games. In Budapest, Chopra asked Jena to join him for a photograph, in Hangzhou he praised his practice throws.
“When someone like Neeraj bhai makes you feel special before a big final, the tension just disappears.”
Since the Asian Games podium finish, Jena’s life has changed. The shy, soft-spoken 28-year-old has had his brush with fame. A women’s cricket team recognised him when he was out for dinner in Bhubaneswar and clicked photographs with him. “I don’t watch cricket,” Jena said candidly, “so I won’t be able to tell you who the players were.”
Felicitations and VIP-like treatment began on his return to Odisha. A 20-kilometre open-top jeep ride from Puri to Brahmagiri, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik handing him a cheque of Rs 1.50 crore, invitations from the Rotary Club and educational institutions – including the college he passed out from – a special darshan of the goddess during a puja at a nearby village.
“I got just four days at home in Kothasahi and the only time I had to myself was when I slept for a few hours at night. There is a lot of change, because hardly anyone knew me before the Asian Games. Now, it is nice to get recognition. Earlier, I could go around because people did not recognise me. But now I can’t do that, especially back home in Odisha. But I am not complaining. Now I can understand how it was for Neeraj (post Tokyo Olympics). I felt fatigued in four days,” Jena said.
He still gets a lump in his throat when he talks about the hardest part of leaving his village and returning to Patiala for training for the National Games. “Papa keeps crying saying ‘when will you come again. You came for a few days and then you are going again.’ I told him I will be back after a couple of months.”
Jena is the youngest of Keshab and Harapriya’s seven children. He has six older sisters. The family wasn’t well off, he says. A small piece of farm land was sold whenever there was a wedding in the family. “Only one of my sisters got married after I got a job,” Jena, a CISF personnel, said. “There was no pressure on me because I was the only son, but as I grew up I felt I had a responsibility.”
A major setback came when his father met with an accident. A monkey attacked the driver of the autorickshaw he was travelling in and the driver lost control.
His father always had Jena’s back, so in his time of need, Jena didn’t think twice before borrowing money.
“My father was coming to meet me from the village to Puri. He had two fractures in his lower back and one in his wrist. I didn’t have a job back then. When the accident happened, there was no money at home. I took loans, my sisters also helped,” Jena recalled.
When he switched from volleyball to javelin after getting admission at a sports hostel in Bhubaneswar, his father used to send him Rs 650 every month. “I knew how difficult it was for my father to spare that money for me. So I was determined not to let it go to waste. The Asian Games medal is a way of thanking my family.”
The prize money he received from the Odisha government has been a blessing for Jena. He paid off the loan he had taken for his sister’s wedding and for his training needs.
“I have not decided what to do with the rest of the money. Things are much better now. I have Reliance as a sponsor, the Odisha government has also helped me. It makes it easier to focus on the Paris Olympics when there is support. Expectations will be more I know because people know me now.”
Today when he thinks about that night in July when he wanted to quit javelin after the disappointing distance in Beirut, Jena says he is thankful for the reassuring voice at the other end of the phone line. “I am glad I spoke to my father that night. Then I could not even think of throwing anywhere close to 87 metres. I was thinking of quitting the sport. Imagine what I would have missed out on.”