Kishore Kumar Jena would have given up javelin even before the world could recognise his potential if it weren’t for his father’s timely advise that he received over the phone at three in the morning in July.
Athletics fans were drawn to Jena when he emerged victorious at the Asian Games, compelling Olympic and World Champion Neeraj Chopra to muster his best throw of the year in order to win another gold medal.
Jena’s results have improved thanks to his October silver medal from the Asiad and his fifth-place finish at the World Championships one month prior. But without a few months’ worth of long-distance communication between a father and son, none of that would have been possible.
Kishore Kumar Jena, who was in Beirut, spoke with his father Keshab, a rice farmer in Kothasahi village near Puri, over the phone. It was a talk between a dissatisfied 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,” he said to the Indian Express.
He claims that when it came time for him to go to Diyagama for the Sri Lankan national championships, his father calmly gave him the order. Keshab informed Jena that if there was no improvement, he might stop playing javelin.
Jena made the decision to give Javelin one last go. He won the championship in Sri Lanka with 84.38 metres, securing a spot in the World Championship. That day, his father went to a temple to worship.
“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,” he said.
Jena continued to become stronger. In the World Championship final, the 28-year-old set a new personal best of 84.77 metres.
He did something at the Asian Games that no Indian had ever done before: he gave Chopra a serious competition. In the third round, Jena set the marker at 86.77 metres. At the end of a lengthy season, Chopra was disappointed that his first throw was not measured and that he had to retake it. However, he triumphed with 88.88 metres. The fourth throw from Jena was 87.54 metres. Jena and Chopra posed for pictures with the national flag slung over their shoulders.
Jena claims he wasn’t as happy with the 87.54m throw as he was with the 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.”
Quick Turn Around for Kishore Kumar Jena!
A 1-2 for India also made Chopra squeal with delight. “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. 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.” I want to express my gratitude to Jena, who pushed me in addition to giving it his all.
Jena has advanced significantly over the past year. Since October of last year, his personal best has increased from 78.05 metres to 87.54 metres.
The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has started looking for a foreign coach for Jena since they think he has a chance to medal at the Olympics in Paris the following year. The AFI wants Jena to benefit from a professional, someone with the same level of skill as Chopra’s coach, German biomechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz.
Jena has a promising future, according to Chopra.
“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 stated this week.
Before the World Championships final and the Asian Games, Jena expresses gratitude to Chopra for helping him overcome his nervousness. Chopra invited Jena to take a picture with him in Budapest, and in Hangzhou, he complimented his practice tosses.
“When someone like Neeraj bhai makes you feel special before a big final, the tension just disappears.
Jena’s life has altered after finishing on the podium at the Asian Games. The 28-year-old, quiet and reserved, has experienced a brief taste of stardom. He was out for dinner in Bhubaneswar when a women’s cricket team spotted him and took pictures with him. Jena said straight up, “I don’t watch cricket,” Jena said candidly, “so I won’t be able to tell you who the players were.”
Kishore Kumar Jena was greeted with fanfares and treated like a VIP upon his return to Odisha. A 20-kilometre open-top jeep ride from Puri to Brahmagiri; invitations from the Rotary Club and educational institutions, including the college from which he graduated; and a special darshan of the goddess during a puja at a nearby village, all handed to him by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
“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 remarked.
When he talks about the hardest part of leaving his village and coming back to Patiala to train for the National Games, he still gets a lump in his throat. “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.”
Kishore Kumar Jena on Hard times
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,” Kishore Kumar 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.” said Kishore Kumar Jena.
Today when he thinks about that night in July when he wanted to quit javelin after the disappointing distance in Beirut, Kishore Kumar 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.”