Dutee Chand aims to defy age in bid to go faster, higher, stronger

Dutee Chand celebrates her silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Dutee Chand is fast. She's always been fast. But this year, she has to run faster than she ever has. With the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games cut-offs set just below her personal best, the two-time Olympian will need to rapidly shift gears before she hangs up her boots after the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The ever-present spring in her step is evident as I meet her at a restaurant in Bengaluru, but she confesses she's just woken up from a nap. She had finished second in the 200m race earlier in the morning at the Khelo India University Games, where she was edged out by promising youngster Priya Mohan. "I never intended to run the 200m," says Dutee with a shrug. "My coach said you're anyway there and it's a direct final (no heats), so give it a shot."

Dutee has been India's fastest female runner since she broke onto the scene in 2012 and remains among the nation's most successful female sprinters. While she has dominated the domestic sprinting scene over the last decade, she feels "abhi umar ho rahi hai, body itni tez nahi hai (I'm growing old, I'm not as fast as I used to be)." She's given herself two more years, until the Paris Olympics. "Aur 2-3 saal body chalega toh chalaenge (I'll pull along for 2-3 more years if my body co-operates)."

She adds, "There are four international events this year with the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, World University Games and World Championships lined up. I've already participated in five events this year to make the cut for these international events."

Dutee's got a far way to go, though - her best this year came at the national inter-university championships in February when she ran 100m in 11.44s. She won the 100m gold here at the Khelo India University Games in 11.63s, which is far from the qualification marks she has to achieve this year - Asian Games (11.36s), Commonwealth Games (11.31s), World University Games (11.44s) and World Championships (11.15s).

For context, she clocked 11.32s to win silver at the 2018 Asian Games, which is just within the qualifying standard of 11:36s set for the upcoming 2022 edition. And the World Championships cut off is 11.15s, while Dutee's personal best is 11.17s.

Yet, she is sure of hitting her peak next month.

"I wasn't able to start training right after the Olympics because I'd hurt my back before the Games. I began training only in December and we've mainly worked on rehab and endurance training over the last six months. In the competitions I've run in so far...the speeds are purely from my endurance training. I'm yet to begin training for speed...I'm confident of hitting my peak in June/July before the international circuit begins," she says in earnest.

She adds, "Even now people say 'Oh Dutee, you are such a big star but why do you have to compete in such small events like national level competitions?' I say I might be a star today but these events are very important for me to qualify for global events. I compete in all events because it helps me understand how ready my body is and what changes I need to incorporate."

Dutee takes pride in her consistency over the last decade. "I don't take any pressure. You win some and lose some. I lost at the inter-state competition last year and people wrote me off but 15 days later I set a national record of 11.17s in Patiala [*Dutee actually set the national record 5 days prior to finishing 3rd in the inter-state competition, and after finishing 2nd in the Federation Cup last year*]. I don't stop competing if I don't do well, that's not the right approach. I'm proud to have been consistent since 2012, most of my performances in big events have been sub-11.3s," she says.

Looking ahead at the Asian Games that will kick off at Hangzhou on September 11, she says, "I'm certainly aiming for the gold this time, but it won't be easy. The current generation of runners are clocking times of 11.1s and the Chinese runners have even run 10.9s. My body is becoming slower and I began training quite late this season, but I feel I still have it in me."

She adds, "I plan to retire after the 2024 Olympics. None of the athletes from my generation are still competing, they've all retired. I plan to retire and open an academy in Odisha to unearth new talents." She hopes to launch the 'Dutee Chand Athletics Speed Academy' which will be solely dedicated to sprinters.

Hardship has been a constant companion for Dutee from the very start - she overcame acute financial issues, fought a hyperandrogenism case in 2014, was ridiculed for coming out as one of India's few openly gay athletes and continues to be heckled for "styling herself."

She might have just woken up from a nap but there's not a hair out of place, much like when she's on the track. Her hair is neatly tucked behind her ears and she's sporting a thin layer of lipstick along with a pair of golden earrings that resemble the sun. And there's fading red nail paint on only her left hand. "I grow my nails in between competitions and chop them right before my events," she says on cue. Once ridiculed for "styling herself", she adds in jest that she felt compelled to "apply face cream to look fair on cameras" but that also drew flak. Dutee swats away the naysayers with a disarming smile, she lets her running do the talking. "The records speak for themselves," she says.

As we end our chat, Dutee talks about her love for speed. Her eyes light up as she mentions her BMW (one that has generated much public debate) and how she once drove from Bhubaneswar to Hyderabad. "Within speed limits, of course," she chips in.

She's just as fast as the BMW as she strides to the elevator. I struggle to catch up with her even when she's walking. She's back in the lobby in a few seconds - "Room key nahi chal raha hai (the room key card is not working)."

Each time Dutee has found a way up, she has been pegged back. But that has never stopped her, has it?