Who is Dhanalakshmi Sekar
At the 2021 Federation Cup in March, Tamil Nadu sprinter Dhanalakshmi Sekar toppled three Indian sprint queens in as many days.
The little-known sprinter shot to fame after beating India’s top women's 100m runner Dutee Chand to the gold and followed it up by outsprinting former world junior champion Hima Das in the 200m heats.
Dhanalakshmi’s second feat also saw her break the legendary PT Usha’s meet record at the Federation Cup in 200m, set 23 years back – about a year before she was born.
Getting one over on three of the biggest names in the world of Indian athletics, Dhanalakshmi rose from anonymity into the limelight almost overnight.
With the collective attention of the Indian athletics fraternity on Dhanalakshmi, here’s what you need to know about India’s latest track and field sensation.
Though named after the Indian and Hindu goddess of luck and prosperity, Dhanalakshmi had to overcome several adversities as a child.
Born on June 5, 1998, in the village of Gundur near Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, Dhanalakshmi lost her father at a very young age. Her mother worked as a domestic help to support the family, which also included Dhanalakshmi’s two younger sisters.
As the eldest sibling, Dhanalakshmi turned to sport – commonplace in Indian rural families from poor economic backgrounds - due to the possibility of government jobs under the sports quota.
While in college, she tried her hand at kho kho but wasn’t too good at it. In 2017, Manikandan Arunmugam – veteran Tamil Nadu-based sprinter and Dhanalakshmi’s current coach – suggested that she try out athletics.
Manikandan admits the suggestion was general advice he would give to any youngster, but there was something special about Dhanalakshmi.
“She didn't have the right technique, but she had the basic (raw) speed. You can't teach that,” Manikandan told ESPN.
Dhanalakshmi's coach Manikandan key
In fact, meeting Manikandan was a huge turning point for Dhanalakshmi.
The two met around three years back when Dhanalakshmi and another Tamil Nadu sprinter Elakkiyadasan Kannadasan started visiting the same ground where Manikandan used to train.
Currently in his early 30s, Manikandan still runs in departmental and inter-state meets. During his heydays, he represented India at various events.
Though his role started as one of an advisor, Manikandan has been on a break since 2020 to coach Dhanalakshmi full-time. Besides coaching, Manikandan has also been helping Dhanalakshmi with food and equipment to the best of his abilities.
“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 in the same way,” Manikandan says.
Dhanalakshmi Sekar broke through in 2018. In June that year, she finished third in both 100m and 200m at the Tamil Nadu State Championships held in Tirunelveli.
Her first major scalp, though, came later that year when she upset the erstwhile National Open 100m champion A. Chandralekha in a university meet at Tiruchirappalli.
The year 2019 was a busy one for the Tamil Nadu youngster. A bronze medal finish in the 200m in the Federation Cup in Patiala was followed by her first overseas meet at Pezenas, France, where she clinched the gold medal in 200m and silver in 100m.
She also ran at the 2019 Universiade in Napoli but failed to progress beyond the heats. It was also her first B category event.
At the 2019 Inter-State Championships in Lucknow, Dhanalakshmi snagged bronze in the 200m event and was a part of the Tamil Nadu team which won gold in the 4x100m relay.
With COVID-19 disrupting almost all events in 2020, Dhanalakshmi saw very little action after winning the silver behind Dutee Chand at the inaugural Khelo India University Games in Odisha.
Personal tragedy further impeded her training as one of her sisters passed away due to illness in 2020.
Dhanalakshmi, however, left her troubles behind and kicked off 2021 with gold medals both in the 100m and 200m at the Tamil Nadu state meet held in Sivakasi back in January.
She gave the Indian Grand Prix a miss because of budget constraints but set the tracks alight at the Federation Cup.
In 100m, Dhanalakshmi clocked 11.38 seconds (her own personal best in 100m) to qualify for the finals as the fastest runner.
Up against Dutee Chand and Hima Das in the final, Dhanalakshmi ran her course in 11.39 seconds to beat second-placed Dutee (11.58 seconds) to the gold. It was her first national-level title.
It was Dutee’s first loss at a domestic 100m event since 2015.
Hima Das, meanwhile, was disqualified from the 100m race for a false start.
Dhanalakshmi, however, beat Hima Das outright in the 200m heats. She crossed the finish line in 23.26 seconds (her personal best in 200m), comfortably beating Hima Das’ timing of 23.49 seconds, to qualify for the final race.
The Tamil Nadu runner’s time was also four-hundredth of a second faster than PT Usha’s timing at the 1998 Federation Cup in Chennai, which stood as the meet record in women’s 200m for 23 long years.
I knew I was competing against Hima Das and Dutee but that was the extra motivation. The spotlight is always on them, no one bothers about the others and I was determined to change that,” Dhanalakshmi told the Hindu.
In the 200m final, though, Dhanalkshmi had to stay content with the silver medal. She clocked 23.39 seconds to finish behind Hima Das, who ran a 23.21-second medal race.
Hima also rewrote the meet record set by Dhanalakshmi a day earlier with her performance.
Tokyo Olympics and the road ahead
Dhanalakshmi’s personal bests – 11.38s in 100m and 23.26s in 200m – are still behind India’s national records. Dutee Chand holds the 100m women’s national record with a timing of 11:22 seconds while West Bengal’s Saraswati Saha has the 200m national record at 22.82 seconds.
Hima Das - who has shifted focus from the 400m to the 200m in recent times - has a better personal best (23.10 seconds) than Dhanalakshmi in the 200m category.
Though the Tamil Nadu youngster has thrown down the gauntlet before both Dutee Chand and Hima Das with the intention to challenge their pedigree as India’s best sprinters, Dhanalakshmi still has a long way to go.
However, Dhanalakshmi is making rapid, yet steady, improvements year on year. If the Tamil Nadu racer continues to maintain her progression graph, she will be an obvious threat to both Hima Das and Dutee Chand’s crowns as the country’s premier women’s sprinters down the line.
Dhanalakshmi Sekar also had a taste of the Olympics, as she travelled to Tokyo 2020 as a reserve for the mixed 4x400m relay team, but did not get to run in the event. The experience of the marquee event should hold her in good stead as she continues to chart her path.
While she has had some sparkling performances in the 100m, Dhanalakshmi’s coach Manikandan believes she has much better prospects in the 200m going forward.
It’s still early days, but India may just have another sprint queen in the making.