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How Dutee Chand turned isolation into her strength

As the star sprinter prepares to run the heats at Tokyo Olympics, here's looking back on her stellar performance at the Asian Games in Jakarta in 2018

Indian sprinter Dutee Chand. (Getty Images)
Indian sprinter Dutee Chand. (Getty Images) (HT_PRINT)

When an athlete goes for a top event, she goes through a kind of self-imposed isolation. ‘There’s no point being tense at an event,’ N. Ramesh [Dutee Chand's coach] had once told me when we discussed how athletes are affected by stress before and during events. ‘The event is where you perform. You have to be completely relaxed and isolated.’

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Who would understand isolation better than Dutee Chand? She has constantly lived in isolation. When news about the gender case broke, Dutee told me, ‘It was like shutting yourself off. You didn’t have much of anything, even food, so isolation came easy. I knew how to close the shutters of the house.’

In Jakarta, at the Asian Games [in 2018], isolation was a bit difficult. And after Dutee’s 100 metres silver, the media was out in force.

In the 200 metres heats, Wei Yongli and Edidiong Odiong finished first and second, with timings of 24.20 and 24.44 respectively. In the second heat, Hima Das, another challenger to Dutee, finished fourth with a time of 23.47. But she qualified for the semis. In the third heat, Nigina Sharipova went through to first place with a time of 23.31.

The fourth heat saw Dutee Chand winning in 23.37, the second fastest time of the heats.

The semi-finals were in the evening. Odiong and Dutee were in the first heat of the semi-finals. It was fast with Dutee winning in 23.00 and Odiong coming in second in 23.01.

Hima Das was in the second heat. Running in lane 1, she jumped off the block much before the starter pistol was fired and was disqualified from the race. This heat was won by Olga Safronova in 23.41.

Fiercely Female: The Dutee Chand Story by Sundeep Misra, Westland Sport, 168 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399
Fiercely Female: The Dutee Chand Story by Sundeep Misra, Westland Sport, 168 pages, 399

With the final the next day, Dutee had time to recover from running two 200 metres races: the heats and the semis. Going down the steps of the Gelora Bung Karno stadium, she had a big smile. She had run the 200 metres semi-finals in 23 seconds flat. She hadn’t managed to step out and explore Jakarta at all, but her hard work had been justified. ‘The races are on my mind all the time,’ she said. ‘I need to win, get medals. That is the only way I can feel I have lived to my potential.’

Ramesh’s mind was already on the final; evaluating it from the point of every competitor, understanding what was required to either win a gold or finish on the podium. Both the 100 metres and the 200 metres races need split-second decisions. Dutee finds the 200 metres slightly tough. Endurance counts in a 200 metres race. The 100 metres is about explosive power. But in 200 metres, a runner must have speed and endurance.

In the 200 metres final, Dutee virtually jumped off the block. Odiong, once again, took her time to power on and it was only on the straight after the bend that she started to stretch the competition. In the second spot, right after the first 100 metres was completed, was China’s Wei Yongli. Now Dutee surged ahead of Wei Yongli who, in June, had run 22.97. With fifty metres left, Odiong was ahead. The surprise was Dutee. Legs moving like propellers, head thrust forward, she was a blur in blue as she flashed past the line. Yongli trailed in her wake, picking up a bronze, a step down from the silver she had won four years earlier in Incheon. The 2014 Asian Games gold medallist Olga Safronova of Kazakhstan finished fifth.

Dutee Chand, who has made it to the Olympics for the second time in a row in the 100m event, is prepping for five to six hours daily. (Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI)
Dutee Chand, who has made it to the Olympics for the second time in a row in the 100m event, is prepping for five to six hours daily. (Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI) (HT_PRINT)

Back in Chaka Gopalpur [Dutee's ancestral village], Dutee’s family had gathered around the television once again. As had occurred a few days earlier for Dutee’s 100 metres race, relatives and friends had dropped in. There was a festive atmosphere, but people were also tense. As always, Dutee’s mother had lighted a lamp in front of the presiding deity of the village for her daughter’s success. Dutee’s house was now the hub from where blessings went out not only for Dutee but the entire Indian athletic team.

To finish in the top three requires much training and lots of competition. That’s why Dutee’s silver medal was a pleasant surprise. Dutee had trained and competed only in Hyderabad before the Asian Games, while Yongli had run three races in England and two in Switzerland, where she clocked below 11 seconds for the first time by running 10.99. In the 200 metres, she ran 22.97 and then in Sweden in June, she ran 23.09. Bahrain’s Edidiong Odiong, the 2016 U-20 champion in the 200 metres with the stunning timing of 22.84, had done seven competitions in the US, twice going below 23 seconds. Dutee had had no competition at all. Just Ramesh and some local athletic talent trying to beat her in the 100 metres and 200 metres.

Exposure is the key to great performances. Dutee, however, has made isolation her strength.

Excerpted from Fiercely Female: The Dutee Chand Story with permission from Westland Sport.

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