With the trials and tribulations behind, she’s raring to go

“I was definitely tense, but somewhere down the line I was confident for my conscience kept reminding me that I had done nothing wrong,” Dutee Chand tells V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM about the dark phase in her life.

At 19, Dutee Chand, the gifted athlete who was banned in June 2014 after winning a golden double (200m and the 4x400m relay) in the Asian junior athletics meet in Taipei, is now in the news for all the right reasons. Thanks to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland, which has suspended the IAAF regulations on hyperandrogenism, Dutee can be back on track now.

For whom life has always been a struggle, hailing as she does from a weaver’s family from a relatively obscure village, Gopalpur (a notified area in Ganjam district in Odisha State), Dutee has come a long way in the world of athletics, having started running on a 200m sand track in her school.

Now, she is quite rightly gunning to be on track to script winning moments. In a chat with Sportstar, she shares her experiences of the harrowing phase in the last one year and thoughts about the future too.

Question: What was your first reaction when you heard about the CAS decision to suspend for two years the Hyperandrogenism Regulations which originally resulted in your ban from competitions?

Answer: It is a huge, huge relief. It also meant the end of a nearly year-long struggle when there were times when I had serious doubts of getting back on the track. But thanks to the constant words of encouragement and great support by Dr. Payoshni Mitra madam (Kolkata-based researcher and activist on gender issues in sport), I kept myself in a good frame of mind.

How do you look at this landmark verdict which should also now help other women athletes who faced or are facing similar problems?

This is what exactly gives me immense satisfaction. The message is loud and clear. If you are confident in yourself that you have not done anything wrong, justice cannot be denied to you. For, in my case I always knew that the excess content of the said hormones, which questioned my gender itself, was a natural consequence and not because of any usage of steroids. This was my strongest point for putting my view across.

When you went to Switzerland for the CAS hearing along with your legal counsel, what was your gut feeling?

I was definitely tense, but somewhere down the line I was confident for my conscience kept reminding me that I had done nothing wrong.

What was the most difficult thing to face in the last one year after you were slapped the ban?

Let me give you some background. In June last year I was called for some tests. I thought they were some routine tests as part of anti-doping measures. But when they went on asking me to come for more and more comprehensive tests, I asked them what the problem was. Then, once they were through with the job and explained to me the whole issue, which could mean facing a ban, I was in a shock.

Thereafter the varied emotions, the avoidable comments from some of the near and dear ones and the athletics fraternity too are not worth recalling. Here were regulations which questioned the gender based on hormones which were in excess in my body owing to natural causes. I just could not understand.

Was there an occasion when your parents or sisters said it was time you quit athletics after this ban was imposed?

Nothing like that. But, yes, there was a lot of uncertainty about my future. They were all more worried about the consequences of fighting against a system. But they never said quit athletics. I am grateful to my mother who made me run on a sand track when I was five when most other parents sent their kids to school. Of course, my elder sister Saraswati Chand (herself a former national athlete of repute) continues to be a huge source of inspiration. A ray of hope was always there even through the testing times.

It is said that there was even a suggestion that you should undergo some sort of medical intervention to weed out the excess hormones?

Yes. I did discuss that with the experts in the field. But was told that was a very risky option which could put me away from the sport for a longer duration. However, since Dr. Payoshni madam had always insisted that we could fight for our genuine right, I avoided that.

What was the most difficult part of this traumatic year?

The pressure of training and running around to defend myself really took a toll on me. It was a harrowing experience and I would not have come through but for the unstinted support of the Union Government, the Sports Authority of India and of course Payoshni madam.

What really hurt me was this ban put me away from the track just when I was peaking. Consequently, I lost invaluable time which otherwise would have seen me in contention for a berth in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Now, how do you look at your career vis-a-vis the Rio Games?

It will definitely take a minimum of five months for me to regain my peak form. The qualification mark in 100m for Indian athletes is said to be 11.31 and my personal best was 11.66 before the ban. So, I was very close to the qualifying mark. Now, you tell me is there a way you can turn the clock back?

So, what will be the area of focus in your training?

Obviously, endurance and a lot of running. It is going to be really tough. But I am ready for the challenge. With Ramesh Sir (SAI athletics coach and her mentor Nagapuri Ramesh who rallied behind her and used his good offices to see that Dutee stayed at the Gopi Chand Academy since December last and trained at the GMC Balayogi Stadium in Gachibowli) coaching me, I am sure I will be in the winning mode again. This verdict has essentially lifted my morale to a different level. I feel more confident and relaxed as that stigma is gone now.

What made you shift to Hyderabad?

It all happened because of Ramesh Sir. During a routine enquiry, when he found me sitting at home in Gopalpur (Odisha) disturbed, he proposed the idea of coming to Hyderabad and getting into training — brushing aside the fight before the CAS. But for him, I would have been sitting at home and doing nothing.

Coach Ramesh puts Dutee through some exercises. It is difficult to predict as to when Dutee will regain her peak form.-

Now, I feel really comfortable training at the GMC Balayogi Stadium with Gopi Bhayya (former All- England champion Pullela Gopi Chand) so sportingly agreeing to let me stay at his Academy. I am grateful to him for this gesture which in a way has given me a fresh lease of life.

To be more specific, will you be focussing on both the 100m and the 200m in the days to come?

Honestly, the 200m will be my first priority and then the 100. Though there is talk that I have to shift to 400m to be in contention for a slot in the Rio Olympics, I am not sure how this can happen. It is like asking a right-handed batsman to bat left-handed. There is a method and meaning to your training programme with a long-term goal.

What is that you regret the most because of this whole episode?

Missing out major events like the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Incheon Asian Games last October. It was frustrating especially when you knew that you were a strong contender for a medal in all these events. The fact that I hold most of the records in the junior category in both the 100m and the 200 is itself a proof that I could have made a mark in these major events.

Do you believe that like some of the top athletes you should also be given the freedom to train with your personal coach?

Why not? If someone else is given that privilege, why not me? We are not asking for anything which is beyond the realms of imagination. Since Ramesh Sir is equally experienced, having been in the National camps for close to 14 years now, and who knows me and my physical condition well, I would love to be with him.

You will not be happy if you are asked to train with a foreign coach in the National camp also?

In the first instance, being away from the national camp for about a year now, the comfort levels of training are important. I am not really sure how I will be treated or welcomed there and what sort of reaction the fellow athletes might come up with. And, the foreign coach in Patiala is definitely not sure of my body features, the kind of training I can do or need to.

Realistically, do you believe that you can regain the winning touch at the international level?

I don’t say it will be easy. But, definitely not impossible. Again, I must confess it requires a lot of hard work, focus and great levels of fitness.

We are already working in that direction and my coach knows how to make me fit for the major competitions. I am really glad when he tells the media that he would make me as good as I was a year ago within the next four months itself. This is the kind of confidence I need in this crucial phase.

Finally, do you look at your ‘victory’ as some sort of message to other athletes, especially women, across the world?

I am not sure whether I can speak for others. Yes, this is great news for all those women athletes who suffered because of similar issues. Yes, it is imperative for all the sportspersons to know the rules and regulations pretty well to be in a positive frame of mind to fight and not just give up if someone plays with your destiny.