Dutee Chand laughs often, speaks her mind, and knows no fear. She is an antithesis to the Indian sporting star who is muzzled by choice, lorded over by the phantom of social media, and reduced to a sum of the brands they endorse. When we look back at the decade in Indian sport, Dutee, our pick for icon of the decade, gleams in her blue vest, lunging past the finish line, her voice carrying hope and strength for women and athletes of all sorts and kinds, telling them you don't have to be sorry for who you are.
Dutee is a misfit. At four feet eleven, she appears to lack the physical shape that survival in the elite sprint universe may demand. A nonplussed foreign coach once tapped Dutee's coach Nagapuri Ramesh on the shoulder and queried whether he really believed his puny-framed ward stood a half-decent chance on the international scene.
"With her size, she wouldn't have crossed her village, it's her will that's got her here," Ramesh would reply.
Dutee's silver medals at the 2018 Asian Games in the 100m and 200m events, were the first for India since the 1986 and 1998 exploits by PT Usha and Saraswati Saha respectively. The total weight of her medals now tops her 48kg body weight.
Dutee is obstinate in her goals. As a young teen, she spent her nights at bus stop benches and railway stations to be able to train in Bhubaneshwar, 80 kms away from her home in the Chakagopalpur village in Odisha. Dutee had always dreamed of owning a car. Her gold-sweeping show in the 100m, 200m and 400m events at the 2013 National School Games prompted then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav to gift her a Nano car and fellow national campers soon nicknamed her after the tiny hatchback.
Two years ago, miscreants in her village Jajpur, torched it. Last year, when coach Ramesh arrived in Bhubaneswar for a felicitation, he found Dutee waiting to pick him up at the railway station in her gleaming new BMW 320d. One that she bought on the morning she drove out from Hyderabad all the way to Bhubaneswar, more than 1000 kms apart. "That's how she is," Ramesh says. "She doesn't want to kill time thinking of her fantasies. She wants to live them."
Dutee loves to fight the good fight. She took on the leviathan, the world athletics body, over its policy on how gender is boxed and labeled. She was just 19 then.
Dutee lives by her own terms. In May this year, she confessed to having found companionship in someone from her own gender. It turned her into India's first openly gay athlete. "Sach kehne mein kyun darna? Ab jaake dil ka bojh halka hua hai (Why fear in speaking the truth? I feel so much lighter now)," she says.
Ramesh had no inkling of her public disclosure ahead of it: "But when I saw news reports, I texted her 'I'm with you.' It's what an athlete needs from a coach. Unconditional support."
Dutee is a tireless giver. The first time I met Dutee, un-heeding of my protests, she dragged me to a small store across the street from the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai for a bottle of fizz as temperatures hovered around the sweltering rear end of 30s. "Aap thake honge (You must be tired)," she smiled, sweat beads dancing on her forehead. Three years ago, when we met in Hyderabad, having treated me to a sumptuous chicken lunch at her favorite restaurant, Dutee coyly mentioned of her 'bachhe log (kids)'. I later learnt she was tending to two aspiring female athletes from her village, paying for their food, travel and lodging and getting them to train under her coach.
It's her way, she says, of being a little more than an athlete.
Dutee embraces failure. After she fell short of clearing Athletics Federation of India's (AFI) Commonwealth Games confirmatory trials in Patiala last year, she and her coach stopped over in Delhi before heading back to Hyderabad, and it was then, coach Ramesh says, that he was let in on her quality of celebrating a setback.
"She was feeling low," Ramesh remembers. "I had some paperwork to sort in Delhi, so I thought I'd go about doing it and give her time to be by herself. Instead, she planned a whole day sightseeing trip for both of us and booked a car to take us to all the tourist spots and take our mind off the trials. For an athlete being able to put failure behind is crucial and Dutee does that remarkably well."
Dutee doesn't give up. She says she slept well on her flight to Geneva for the Court of Arbitration for Sport's (CAS) hearing on hypoandrogenism. Even if the court were to junk her plea, she was armed with a fresh dream: "Main khud nahi bhaag paayi toh kya hua, doosri ladkiyon ko bhagaungi (Even if I can't race anymore, I'll get other girls to run)."
She eventually won, got a policy existing for a crag aeon to be brought to question and her neon spikes haven't found time off since.
Dutee is unafraid to talk of her future. She lists politics among her primary ambitions after her career on the track has run its course. Her voicing such a will at the age of 23 copped up some flak but she is unfazed. "I want to be able to serve people," she says. "For that it's important that I'm with them, among them and working for them. As an athlete, there are limits to my ability to reach out, a platform that politics can offer."
Dutee is bigger than her sport. She is always looking for a reason to hope, move, change and inspire. Her journey is now folklore in her village. It's the story that generations after her will live to hear: Of the girl who sprinted along the banks of the Brahmani river and took on her destiny.