Saturday, November 27 2021
BHUBANESHWAR: James Hillier, the head coach of the Reliance Foundation Odisha High Performance Center (HPC) in Bhubaneshwar, has a story to tell. It dates back to when Neeraj Chopra was not even a potential Olympic medalist. It was in Bydgoszcz, Poland, when Chopra was busy getting counted at the world junior track and field championships.
“That arm,” Hillier recalls. The former Bath-born English hurdler was at the stadium, in the stands, as part of the Great Britain coaching staff.
“I had heard about him because he was the record holder and wanted to watch this guy. Suddenly, bang, it’s done.”
It was sort of a prelude to what Hillier would watch again five years later, this time on TV, when young Chopra would repeat the feat at the 2021 (2020) Summer Olympics. ‘A throw, bang, it’s done’.
“Like the fast bowlers of the West Indies,” says Hillier, clearly a cricket fan. “You should look at the kind of javelin throwers the Caribbean has produced. And the island has given us the best of the fast bowlers. It’s all about arm speed,” he says.
Years later, Hillier would meet Chopra again, when the Haryana-born came to train for nearly two and a half months at the HPC athletics in Bhubaneshwar between December 2020 and February 2021, before preparing for Tokyo.

HPCA head coach James Hillier with young rider from Assam Amlan Borgohain and another athlete, Nilesh Makwana. (Photo YOU ​​by Sanjib Das)
“The qualities he showed when he was here – it all came from him. No one was telling him to do it, he was doing it himself. Yes, he had the coaches, the support staff; but that’s him. who wanted to do things right.
“He took ownership of what he did, took responsibility. Responsibility for what he did. That’s what good athletes do. They take responsibility, they make things happen. They surround themselves with capable people, good people. That’s what Neeraj finished. ”
At Kalinga, since Hillier arrived here in November 2019, the 43-year-old has focused on this aspect more than anything else: the pursuit of excellence.
“The Odisha government has put in place a very good system and, supported by Reliance, you can see a very solid foundation being put in place. I hope that we can now rely on this system. This is what excited me when I considered doing it. role, ”he says.
In the years to come, when he is finished, Hillier wants to retire to Bath, 11 miles south-east of Bristol in England and where he comes from, to sit in a rocking chair with a pipe and a pint and look with pride at something he managed to achieve. .
And what would it be in the current context? A legacy he can build by doing what he does at Kalinga, working with a group of very talented young people and keeping an eye on the 2026 Youth Olympic Games.
“When you take on a role like this, you want to create a kind of legacy. So being associated with something at a fundamental level, right from the start is something exciting. You will see the success emerge from Odisha in the next few years, ”says Hillier.
One prospect already in the making at HPC is 16-year-old Sabita Toppo, a runner who prefers hurdles to other races in which she has been very good. At the 2020 Sprint and Middle Distance Festival, Sabita was named best female athlete after achieving four personal best times in six races, including three in her favorite event – the 100m hurdles. Since joining the CHP in August of last year, Sabita has now improved her time by over two seconds and clocked a time of 14.54 seconds in her last 100m hurdles race of the competition.
“I want to run under 14 seconds,” she said. Hillier realizes she can do it, probably better than she can think of right now.
Young Sabita comes from Sundergarh – that talented gold mine of Odisha – and is the youngest of six siblings.
At the Junior Nationals in Guwahati in February, Toppo stood out, winning gold in the women’s U-16 long jump and silver in the women’s U-16 80m hurdles. Toppo, who was singled out as an athlete with immense potential, crossed 5.59 meters in the long jump and completed the 80m hurdles in 11.77 seconds, eclipsing her previous personal best scores in both events. .
“This girl can handle the pressure,” says Hillier. “And she loves competition. She has a great ability to raise her level in competition. We have a long term vision with her.”
Another talent to watch is young Amlan Borgohain of Assam who clocked his best time in the men’s 200m at the recent 60th National Track and Field Open in Warangal this month. Borgohain finished at 25.04 seconds, far ahead of second Nithin B of Tamil Nadu.
“There are three things any country or ecosystem needs to be good at athletics. At least that’s how I feel, ”says Hillier. 1) Good supervision; 2) Competitions, many of them; 3) Convenience and access.
The CHP aims to work on these three aspects. Hillier explains further.
Good training -Specialized trainers at all ages are essential. The needs of a 13 or 14 year old athlete are completely different from those of a Neeraj Chopra at, say, 23 years old.
Competitions: We need a very efficient competition system. This is where the United States does surprisingly well. They have a fantastic competitive structure where they have universities against universities. Their national championships are huge. And there are plenty of other competitions.
Take India – the national championships are fantastic… good, big events and well funded. The problem is, there aren’t enough small competitions. So until you reach the national championships you don’t compete enough, and that’s a big deal.
Core-commodity: This means athletics should be accessible to everyone. If anyone wants to go try it out, anyone who sees Neeraj on TV winning a gold medal and is inspired by it, they have to have an athletics track a short distance from their home. Otherwise, they won’t be able to do it.
The exceptional story of the very talented Jyoshana Sabar – also in training at HPC – is a case in point.
“Performance sport is brutal. Let’s not beat around the bush, ”says Hillier. “It’s all about levels and participation is everything because it fuels the next level at all levels. Look at a pyramid this way. You have a lot of kids doing a lot of competitions and you don’t worry too much. whether they are good or not. You are just giving them the opportunity. If they are good, they will keep leveling up until the best reach the top.
“You just make the base of the pyramid as big and as wide and as deep as possible. And then you wait,” he adds.

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