Till she turned six, life for Dutee was unremarkable and homespun. All it involved was waking up, lolling about, romping around the village, listening to Saraswati talk and watching her older sister run on the banks of the Brahmani. ‘It was fun,’ she says. ‘I never realised we had severe financial problems. As a child, that part of life doesn’t touch you.’
Once Dutee turned six, Saraswati urged her to run every day. ‘I never understood why she insisted,’ Dutee says. ‘But out of fear, I ran. Also there was nothing much to do while we sat on the riverbank watching Nani (elder sister Saraswati) run.’
On the school’s sports days, Dutee began to win little laurels. That’s when she started enjoying it. Running was one thing, but winning gave her a kick. Dutee got books, bags and other school paraphernalia as awards and rewards.
Returning home with prizes was a thrill because none of her other siblings won anything. Saraswati was already running at national championships and police meets.
Although Dutee can’t recall exactly when she got her first pair of running shoes, she remembers the day very clearly. It was sometime in 2005 and they were gleaming white sneakers. She just sat and stared at them. For a couple of days, she couldn’t bring herself to wear them: the village roads were not metalled and she didn’t want them to get muddy.
The first time she put them on to run, she ran delicately, as if she were running on glass. ‘I just didn’t want anything to happen to the shoes,’ she laughs. After the day’s run ended, the shoes went into a cupboard with a lock. The rest of the time, Dutee went barefoot around the village and to the school.
Saraswati knew discipline would only come from a regimen. There were too many distractions in the village. And as an older sister, she knew it was impossible to keep prodding Dutee to run. The diet at home was meagre. It would never help Dutee get stronger and develop as an athlete and sprinter.
At the Sports Hostel in Bhubaneswar, at least the diet would be adequate for a growing girl; there would be coaches and, hopefully, the competition within the group would push Dutee to excel.
The trials at the Sports Hostel, Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar, were a cake walk for Dutee. In a group of more than hundred athletes, she won everything hands down: she was faster, had better endurance and also jumped the farthest.
But they wanted her to put on weight. The standard was thirty-five kilos for the under-fourteen batch and at eleven years old, Dutee weighed only twenty-seven kilos. Her standard diet of dal and rice twice a day meant she had not developed physically. But she was fast and the coaches took note of that.
It is a mystery why they asked her to put on weight. For a girl who came from a poverty-stricken background, food was a luxury and a diet with the right amount of vitamins and protein a super-luxury. Eventually, only eight athletes were selected for further training. Despite being undernourished, Dutee was in.
She joined the hostel in July 2006. Coach Chittaranjan Mohapatra was very impressed. The short, thin girl had the right attitude. She trained long and hard and listened carefully. For Dutee, life outside the village was daunting. She had never been away from home before and now she had been pitchforked into a group of highly competitive people. She felt alienated and unsettled.
But she had been instructed by Saraswati to never say no to the coach when it came to training and hours of practice, and that impressed Chittaranjan. Most of Dutee’s coaches praise her efforts and work ethic.
There were no 100 metres or 200 metres when Dutee joined the sports hostel. She ran the 800 and 1,500 metres and did the long jump and beat everyone else in these events. In the School Nationals, however, she got an opportunity to run the 200 and 400 metres and she won both. She also picked up the silver in the 800 metres.
In the School Nationals held in Mumbai, she was out in the heats of the 400 and 800 metres. Saraswati kept an eye on her sister’s results. She knew Dutee had speed, but she didn’t want to tell the coaches to focus on sprints. Not yet. Meanwhile, in the 2007 East Zone Junior Athletics, Dutee picked up the gold in the 100 metres.
And then came the twelve-second run in the 100 metres at the 2010 National Juniors U-16 that convinced everyone that Dutee could go all the way to the top. Dutee remembers that December day clearly. It was typical Bengaluru weather: not too cold; warm sunshine on the track. She had been nervous. It was her first big final.
‘I always have an issue with the announcers,’ she says. ‘I went early so that I wouldn’t miss the race.’ She sat by the side of the track for almost an hour before the other finalists arrived. Her start did the trick; she broke the national record which stood at 12.21. Her twelve-second timing blew the track away.
That afternoon, almost every coach at the championships spoke about the girl who had won the 100 metres. Even today, Ramesh, her current coach, remembers that run though he hadn’t been there. ‘Someone told me about this Odisha girl who was running the 100 in 12 flat. To run 100 in 12 was incredible then.’
With that run, the athlete who would go to the Olympics and the World Championships had arrived.
Excerpted with permission from ‘Fiercely Female: The Dutee Chand Story’ by Sundeep Misra, Published by Westland Sports.