It took Dhana Lakshmi Sekar 11.38 seconds to announce herself as India's latest breakout sprinter. The 22-year-old from the village of Gundur near Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu recorded that time on Monday in a 100m heat during the Federation Cup in Patiala. That's seriously fast. To put that time in perspective, Dhana Lakshmi's time was the fastest ever ratified in the women's 100m in a competition in India by an athlete other than national record holder Dutee Chand.
Dhana Lakshmi took a micro second longer -- 11.39 seconds - on Tuesday's finals just to remind everyone that her earlier timing wasn't just a one-off, and it was more than enough to beat Dutee Chand herself in the 100m finals. Although a little slower than a day ago, Dhana Lakshmi's effort was still a credible achievement against the Asian Games silver medallist Dutee, who came in second with 11.58. Hima Das, the junior World champion over the 400m, was disqualified for a false start.
Dhana Lakshmi got off to a very quick start, and at one point seemed as if she would improve on her timing from a day earlier, but couldn't find the finish she wanted. "I'm happy that I won but I think I could run a lot faster. I was a little nervous because this was my first national competition of the year. Because of that my body was a little tight over the final stretch," Dhana Lakshmi said.
"I was hoping she'd run around 11.20 in the final but she wasn't able to control her nerves and so she couldn't run that fast. Once she has a little more experience she'll be able to control the race a lot better," says her coach Manikandan.
Perhaps the 21-year-old could have been able to raise a few eyebrows a few weeks earlier had she taken part in the Indian Grand Prix events that are held precisely for the purpose of giving some match practice. But, very simply, she couldn't have afforded it. "The total cost for train tickets to Delhi, then travel to Patiala and then booking a hotel room for the duration of the Federation Cup competition is 10,000 rupees. We can't afford that expense. All our money comes from sponsors and well-wishers. We had only one chance to make our mark," says Manikandan.
Lack of resources is a constant adversary for Dhana Lakshmi. Her father died when she was young and her mother worked as a domestic help to feed and educate Dhana Lakshmi and her two younger sisters. Like many others with such economic backgrounds, sport was a way out of that struggle. "She started out playing kho kho in college but wasn't very good at it. That's when I suggested she try athletics. Her only priority was perhaps getting a government job," says Manikandan.
"I know what it's like to be hungry but also how athletics can change lives." Manikandan
The suggestion was made in 2017. Manikandan admits he didn't really expect much of it, since he had given similar advice to many young athletes who hail from Gundur just like he does. He was taken by surprise by Dhana Lakshmi, though. "She didn't have the right technique but she had the basic speed. You can't teach that," he says.
Manikandan knew what he was looking at. He's a sprinter of some ability himself -- having medalled in the 100m in India from 2009 to 2019 with gold at the Open Nationals in 2014. Although he was still competing, he took Dhana Lakshmi under his wing, helping her out with food, equipment and coaching. "I know what it's like to be hungry but also how athletics can change lives. I've been part of the national camp and I've won a bronze at the Asian Grand Prix too. I've got a job in the Railways now. I want to help other athletes from my district also in the same way," he says.
Manikandan says he trained Dhana Lakshmi under the same regime he was following at the Rockfort Sport Academy in Trichy's Ponmalai Railway Ground. Within a year, she'd made a mark at the universities level, winning gold in the 200m in the Inter Universities championships in Mangalore.
She finally looked like she'd caught a break at this point, even signing with a corporate sponsor but was dropped a year later after struggling with the change of the coaching setup. Her struggles continued in 2020 as her training suffered owing to the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. Personal tragedy struck too with her sister dying due to a sudden illness.
"All through it all she never gave up or lost focus. She continued to train. When she couldn't go to the ground, she'd run on the road outside her home," says Manikandan.
He and other well-wishers did what they could as well. "When we knew we had to take part in the Federation Cup, we didn't have any money. But I was able to arrange some money and luckily we got sponsored by Prashanth Shiva, who runs a foundation known as the Ath Help Foundation in Trichy," he says. That came with its own pressure. "You know someone has done you a favour. So you want to make sure you justify that trust," he says.
While Dhana Lakshmi has won the 100m, she's missed out on the Olympic qualification standard, which is 11.15 seconds. But although they'd gotten close, the 100m wasn't Dhana Lakshmi's priority. That will be the 200m over the last two days of competition in Patiala. "She's a much better 200m runner. She took part in the Tamil Nadu State Championships in January and she did a personal best time of 23.47 seconds there. I think we have a better chance to match the Olympic standard (22.80) here," he says.
While coach Manikandan is looking for an individual quota, Dhana Lakshmi, with her strong 100m timing, might even have a strong chance of qualifying as part of the 4x100m quartet. But while the Olympics would be a huge achievement for the 22-year-old, she's got a simpler request. "I've won the gold here. It's my first national title and I'd be very happy if I am able to get a job with it," she says.