At the end of a good 100m sprint, it's likely that runners remember nothing. Dutee Chand felt a familiar stab of forgetfulness as she strode over the finish line in 11.32 seconds in Napoli on Tuesday. Her mind had switched itself off, her heart was hammering and she could barely feel her legs.
She'd become the first-ever Indian female track and field athlete to win a gold medal at the World University Games. The only other Indian to win a track and field medal at the event was shot putter Inderjeet Singh in 2015.
Dutee isn't new to the distinction of firsts - the first athlete to challenge an existing rule of the world athletics body, the first Indian female athlete to qualify for the 100m event at the Olympics in 36 years and more recently, the first openly gay Indian athlete. Her admission of the latter pitchforked her into news headlines, had her splashed on the cover of a major lifestyle magazine and left family members and neighbours back in her village in Odisha angry, confused and ill-prepared for the onslaught of attention.
It's barely 6am in Napoli the morning after her win but Dutee is already up. "The past two months have been challenging....very challenging," she tells ESPN. "There was a lot of negative talk, pulling me down, tearing me apart. Bohot logon ne kaha ki Dutee pyaar kar rahi hai, sports toh chhod hi degi...yeh medal mere liye iss time pe bahut zaroori tha. (Many people said that Dutee is busy with her love life and she'd quit the sport. A medal at this juncture was very crucial for me)."
She's still some distance away from her goal of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. To touch the 11.15 seconds entry standard from a personal best of 11.24 seconds (which she clocked in Almaty, Kazakhstan in June 2016), Dutee says training and competing overseas in the months ahead will be imperative. Her plans to train at the IMG Academy in Florida are still stuck in the usual bottleneck of funds sanction. In March this year, a coach from the academy had visited Dutee in Hyderabad.
"My results have been the best I could do with training in India," she says. "But to maximise my speed and work on my technique, foreign exposure, through both training and competitions, is crucial."
Pull me down, I will come back stronger! pic.twitter.com/PHO86ZrExl
- Dutee Chand (@DuteeChand) 9 July 2019
In the 100m dash, shorter legs like Dutee's are an advantage in the acceleration phase between 15-50 metres. The final 20m stretch, in the deceleration phase, is where she feels her body tightening up. It's natural for sprinters to feel so if they speed up in the closing stages of the race. It's an area she says she needs to work on. More competitions overseas -- where she can race alongside athletes clocking between 10.90 -11.10 seconds -- is likely to push her to a better timing. More than anything else, this medal, even if not at a most high-profile event, comes at a delicate juncture for her - just when her personal truths had begun to eclipse her performances. "This medal has given me hope," she says. "Ab Olympics door nahi. (Olympics isn't far anymore)"