In 2020, the world seemed to stand still. It was a difficult year for many people - and athletes faced enormous challenges. But for Johannes Vetter, the German javelin superstar, the year was a success from an athletic point of view. He had one of the best seasons of his career in 2000.
The 28-year-old unleashed a monster throw of 97.76m at the Continental Tour Gold level athletics event in Chorzow, Poland in September 2020 and threatened the world record of 98.48m set by three-time Olympic champion Jan Železný in 1996.
He not only broke his own national record, but also put himself second on the all-time list of javelin throwers.
“I'm really proud of myself for what I did last year. And I mean, one more reason was just to show the whole society that it's still possible to do something good and have big achievements also in those difficult times, ” Vetter said to Tokyo 2020 in an exclusive interview.
However, 2019 and the beginning of 2020 proved difficult for Vetter, as he dealt with personal loss and injury. Like many top athletes, Vetter was living with pain caused by the intensity of the sport.
“There’s so much pressure on the body. I mean, on our right leg, if you throw with your right hand, it's like four to five hundred kilos; and on the left leg, it's more than a ton of pressure, which we have to hold,” Vetter explained.
For a long time, Vetter suffered with pain in his left foot, which began to affect his performances in 2019. However, even with the pain, he managed to win a bronze medal at the Doha 2019 world championships. Dealing with the grief of losing his mother at the end of 2018 also took a toll on him both mentally and physically.
It meant that after Doha, the athlete decided to take time out to process everything that had happened to him.
“I had some time to think about myself and think about the sport, and I got some distance from sport, which I wasn’t getting before,” said Vetter, “I learned just to enjoy what I'm doing, because it's a privilege that I'm able to do my hobby as a job.”
“And I know that mom would be enormously proud of me, and still, takes great care of me,” he said.
As Vetter began to see the light in the spring of 2020, the world was suddenly plunged into darkness. He had a goal of reaching the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, but suddenly all of those plans were thrown into disarray.
Instead of feeling hopeless after the loss of his biggest goal, Vetter decided to break his objective down into smaller goals: to throw over 90m, to become German champion, to become the best he could in his sport.
After only three competitions, he had realised all his aims and said to himself: ”Now you can enjoy it. You’ve reached all your goals for this year also in these crazy pandemic times.”
Vetter thinks that it is the reason why he is in such a great form, because he can simply enjoy what he does. And after consistent top performances at recent events, the athlete can now look back on 2020 with pride: “I would say it (2020) was the best year of my career until now. I think this year is really getting better.”
Vetter has been in amazing form in 2021, consistently throwing over 90 metres. No other javelin thrower has been able to get close to him. It is this consistency that makes him favourite for gold in Tokyo, although it is difficult for him to describe what the secret is.
“It is really difficult to explain to someone who has never thrown a javelin, because there are so many small movements in such a short time. For example, when I land on my right leg and switch to my left leg, we are talking about 200 or 250 milliseconds.”
For him to throw so well, everything needs to be almost perfect. So much hard work goes into fine-tuning every step of the sprint and the transferal of all the body’s power into the speed of the javelin.
“So in a quarter of a second, you prepare the throw and so many muscles are working together. That’s a really difficult part of the training, to make things perfect - to make the throw perfect,” Vetter explained. “It’s a bit like a Formula 1 car, you can always make small changes here and there and you can always find some small mistakes.”
It all begins with extremely hard work and precise calculations but when it comes to the throw that seems to temporarily escape gravity, Vetter says it’s about “the feeling of the body.”
“It’s the body that tells you how to throw it. So if the tension in the body is as great as it can be, the throw itself should be good. And if you adapt this feeling, if you save this feeling from your body and your mind, then it will be smoother and easier,” he said.
Competing at such a high level is a pursuit of perfection. However, Vetter understands that perfection is a fluid process, not a state of being.
“I wouldn't say that the throw last year was a perfect throw because you always find some small mistakes and some small things you can do better. That is the most exciting part of throwing Javelin,” he said.
Tokyo 2020 will mark the second occasion Vetter has competed at an Olympics. At Rio 2016, he finished fourth. During the post-competition interview, he cried. They weren’t tears of regret but of pride and gratitude.
“I was crying because I was proud of myself and so proud of my coach and my whole team, of my family and friends who are always supporting me. So it was not like, ‘Oh, come on, I didn’t throw six centimetres further than the third athlete,” he said. When Vetter speaks of Rio he is cheerful and lighthearted, showing that his memories of that Olympic Games are fond ones.
But since he decided to change coach in 2014, Vetter has been on a fast track to the top. His javelin throws have gone from 79m to 80m and then 85m, all the way through to the 90m he throws today. And Rio was all part of that process. “From fifth in Germany to fourth in the world, that’s nothing to be sad about,” he explained.
In a matter of days, Vetter will throw the javelin at another Olympic Games. His 2021 personal best came just weeks ago, a 96.29m effort at the European Team Championships in Chorzow, Poland. It is the third-longest javelin throw of all time.
But for now, the German continues to compete. He is, he says, “dancing on a knife-edge”, balancing that desire to throw a personal best or world record with the knowledge that every physical body has its limitations. It is the key to accomplishing what few could ever dream of.
Without a doubt, the world will be looking at him in Tokyo, waiting with bated breath to see just how far this inspirational javelin giant can throw when he competes on the greatest sporting stage of them all.