Dutee Chand, the fastest woman in India, stands at just about 5 feet 6 inches – a fact she mentions, affects her in some of her races.

But when the sprinter takes a stand, she stands tall with her trailblazing actions with far-reaching consequences both on and off the track. Only 23, she has fought odds worse that most people, even international-level athletes, can imagine.

She was only 18 when her gender was questioned and she faced scrutiny – and insults – for not being a woman. In 2014, she was banned after a test found unusually high testosterone levels in her body, a condition known as “hyperandrogenism”. She took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won a landmark case that allowed her to compete as a woman.

Last month, she became India’s first athlete to come out and openly declare herself as member of the LGBTQ community. She revealed she faced backlash from her family and came out only after blackmail from her sister.

In a society as traditional as India – the Supreme Court struck down the British-era law on homosexuality as late as 2018 – the LGBTQ community is yet to receive universal acceptance. But coming from a poor family of weavers in Chaka Gopalpur, a village in Jajpur district of Odisha, to admit being in same-sex relationship would take a lot more courage that running down the distance of 100m in the high-pressure Olympics.

But the 23-year is made of far stronger stuff. She fought, or rather ran, her way from a small village to being a global trailblazer for women athletes. She offered her team to Caster Semenya after she lost her case against International Association of Athletics Federations rules forcing the South African to lower her testosterone levels.

And the double 2018 Asian Games silver-medallist does not shy away from using her voice to call out the sport’s sexism and her country’s double standards for women.

“In India anyway people follow traditions a lot. They do not allow girls to go out. They will put the blame on the girls, and if anyone wants to do anything, they will stop them,” she said in Hindi talking about how a test result tried to define what being a woman is.

“There are no rules for men but for women there are so many tests: why is your hormone count so high, how much is your body fat, how much is your height, they check everything. But not every human body can be the same, the development of a human body differs even from country to country and athletes are made depending on that development. Like lot of good athletes come out from countries like America and Jamaica, but we can’t even reach that level,” she added, talking on the sidelines of the launch event for Skechers GoRun 7 in Mumbai.

Dutee Chand at the Launch of Skechers GoRun 7

Talking about how Semenya was denied permission to race in Morocco before being allowed to do so following a court order, she recounted her own life incidents. “When you go to any event, athletes look at you in a way that you’re not an athlete. You feel a lot then. As if being an athlete is already not stressful enough, life becomes even more stressful with this,” she said, but with a smile.

That smile was present when she said how the outpouring of positivity since coming out has motivated her even more. The negativity at home was overshadowed by the support.

“It was difficult for me at first. In Odisha or the world, people don’t follow rules, people follow traditions. People are orthodox in their thinking, so it becomes a challenge to make them understand. First time when this issue happened in Odisha, people spoke very badly of me. But slowly when they started reading positive things on newspaper and TV, people starting understanding.

“I didn’t expect anything. I thought that people might speak ill of me after I spoke about it because I’m an athlete and a celebrity, and maybe it will affect my game again like in 2014. But by God’s grace, there’s been no such thing. Athletics Federation of India, Sports Authority of India, everyone has supported it, saying it is your personal life and no action will be taken due to it. In fact, they told me to train well,” she said.

Where does she get this indomitable strength from?

“That’s because whatever I am doing, I want to do for my country. My family is supporting me, the public is also supporting me. So that increases my confidence that whatever I’m doing, I’m doing for the truth and for my country.”

But there is another, inherent source of strength: the burning desire to – in colloquial words – let haters hate.

“When someone speaks ill of me, I feel a sense of jealousy from inside. I also get angry. Jo bolte hai na, haat se nahi maar sakte toh chawal se maro [roughly translated to ‘if you can’t hit someone with your hand, throw something at them]. I can’t hit people with my hand, but I will do some things that will want people to try and hit me but they won’t be able to. That’s how I become strong. The more the people speak bad about me, the more I focus on my training,” she added.

But it wasn’t so easy in the initial days and her training was disturbed. She is not comfortable talking about her partner because of how the publicity affected her.

“I’ve already told everyone how much stress my sister gave me. I couldn’t train properly at least for 10-15 days after that. But now, I’m starting to forget everything and getting back to my training. I’ve received a lot of support from the public and it has made me feel comfortable,” she added.

Up next for the 23-year-old are the World University Games on June 28th in Italy. She is training for the competition, but wishes she could have done more in her preparation. She wants to focus more on finishing her races as she starts well but loses steam midway.

But she is yet to get funds sanctioned from the government for specialised training in Florida due to the elections. The former sports minster’s assurance that she will be part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme is also yet to materialise. But she is at peace with it.

“Our government’s train runs very slow. Jab station mein lagega tab chadenge [when it halts at the station, I’ll climb in],” she adds with a laugh.

For someone who has climbed far more insurmountable peaks, climbing in this slow train can’t be as daunting. For now though, it’s all about running.