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Dutee Chand's 60m plan for 100m boost

Dutee Chand. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The past few months have turned Dutee Chand's life on its head.

The camera is now her friend. She has learnt to hold her smile long enough and not blink too soon. She has been jettisoning from TV studios to felicitations, chat shows and photo shoots, sashaying the titles she never willed with an impish laugh.

In May, Dutee became India's first openly gay athlete and with the revelation she found herself being propped as the champion of LGBTQ rights, splashed across magazine covers and centre spreads for what was seen as a fearless stance. It also drove a spike in her commercial endorsement offers.

"I was just being myself. All I did was speak the truth," Dutee says. "I never thought that saying what I did would be brave or popular. But my life has changed and what I enjoy the most now is the respect wherever I go. I didn't have that earlier."

In the wave of support she has won, the 23-year-old's family is conspicuously missing, having drifted away from her. Dutee's elder sister, she believes, is out to run that wedge even deeper.

"I still visit my parents at home," Dutee says. "But things between us aren't quite the same anymore. There's distance, perhaps even some anger towards me. I wish we could go back to being the way we were before."

But Dutee is clear that she does not wish to have her headline-making personal life overshadow her identity as an athlete. Her second successive Olympic qualification dream is 0.07 seconds away. She has had a year where she shattered national records, won gold medals but still has her qualification ambitions spilling into the months ahead of the Tokyo Games.

At the National Open Athletics Championships in Ranchi last month, she bettered her own 100m national record feat of 11.26s with a timing of 11.22s, which would have been enough to block her spot in the semifinals of the World Championship.

Dutee, however, ended up floundering in the Worlds, blaming it on the heat, and managed only a listless 11.48s - one of her worst finishes of the season. She finished seventh in the heats and failed to make the semifinals. The Olympic qualifying standard this time is set at 11.15 for the women's 100m.

Following the off-season, coach N Ramesh has penciled in plans for her to compete at 60m events at the Asian as well as World Indoor Championships in February and March respectively in China.

The idea, Ramesh says, is simple - to build on her strongest suit, an explosive start.

The start in a 100m race is all about instinct - muscles contracting, pushing against the starting blocks, balls of feet, knees and ankles in alignment, listening for the gunshot. Anticipate it and you could be disqualified. You can only react to it. Blasting off the blocks, sprinters drive their arms powerfully in opposite directions and slip into the acceleration phase.

"Dutee's block start is very good, she can be terrific especially in the first 30 metres," Ramesh says. "So we decided to break down the distance, have her focus in what she does best and then add the extra distance to it later. It's where the 60m sprint events will come in handy."

Dutee went through a similar grind in the days leading up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, too, touching the cut-off mark of 11.32 only in June, a mere two months before the Games. Ramesh vouches that they are better prepared now.

"Last time we spent all our energy just qualifying for the Games so by the time she actually got to Rio in August she was spent, exhausted and had nothing more left to offer. This time around we have a better hang of peaking both in time for qualification events and the Games itself," he says.

"I tell her, 'Dutee tum hamesha mujhe tension mein kyun rakhti ho Olympics se pehle?' (Why do you always keep me tense in the run-up to the Olympics?). Dutee's response is quicker than her start - 'Aap tension mein hi sabse badhiya kaam karte ho' (It's when you're tense that you work the best)."