Saturday, May 23, 2009

Running like the wind


Winning the first race she took part in and meeting coach O.M. Nambiar changed the course of athlete P.T. Usha’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

When P.T. Usha was in Class four she took part in a race in a school in Thrikkottu, near Payolli, and defeated the sub-zilla champion Baby Sarala, who was in Class seven. “That was when Balakrishna Master, the physical education teacher realised I had the talent,” says Usha. She began training under him.

Soon Usha won the sub zilla championships and districts meets. When she was in Class 7, there was an advertisement in the newspaper asking for applicants for the G.V. Raja Sports school, which was starting a girl’s section at Kannur.

Thanks to the initiative taken by an uncle, Usha took part in the selection trials and got the first rank. It was at Kannur that Usha came under the tutelage of coach O.M. Nambiar.

But Usha had seen Nambiar earlier, at a meet at Payolli. “He was wearing a suit, a cap and sneakers and walked about with an air of self-importance,” she says. “He stood out because people in our village usually wore a shirt and mundu.”

During the training Usha stood out, among the 80 students, for her sincerity and dedication. “I always followed Nambiar Sir’s instructions and did the many exercises he asked us to do,” says Usha. “I never took it easy.”

As a result, Usha began to improve. She took part in the Under 14 state level competition at Kollam and won the 100m and 60m hurdles, as well as the 200m in the Under 16 section.

Usha’s turning point came when she defeated the national 100m champion, Rita Sen of West Bengal at the Ajmer Nationals. “I was only 16, while Rita was 28,” she says.

Subsequently, Usha was selected to be part of the Indian team that went for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. “I was very happy, but when Nambiar Sir was not allowed to accompany me it was a big blow,” she says. “I felt very nervous.”

This is understandable because here was a girl from a small village in Kerala, who was travelling on a plane for the first time and taking part in one of the biggest events in an athlete’s career.

Out of anxiety Usha vomited several times in Moscow. “I was so skinny that the thighs of the women athletes were the size of my body,” says Usha, with a smile, as she sits in the stadium at the Maharaja’s College ground watching her trainees take part in state selection trials. Not surprisingly, Usha came nowhere in the 100 and 200m at Moscow.

However, Usha made amends when she won her first international medals during a meet at Karachi in 1980. But she will never forget the train journey from India to Karachi. “I was travelling in the unreserved compartment,” she says. When the train was passing through the Pakistani countryside, some mischievous youngsters flung cow dung and it hit Usha smack on the face.

She took it in her stride and won golds in the 100, 200m, 4 x 400m and 4 x 100m relay. “It was a big moment for me,” she says. “I developed the confidence to do well in international meets.”

Thereafter, Usha won numerous medals at Asian meets in the next few years. When she won five golds and one bronze at the Asian Track and Field Championship at Jakarta in 1985 she set a world record for the maximum number of golds won by a female athlete in a single international meet.

For the 1984 Olympic Games at Los Angeles, the 400m hurdles for women was introduced for the first time. A shrewd Nambiar asked Usha to begin training for this event.

“Nambiar Sir felt that I had a good chance to win a medal,” says Usha. During the selection trials for the Olympics at Delhi Usha clocked 55.7 seconds, which was one of the best timings in the world at that time. Journalists from America came to interview her.

At the Games Usha came first in the semi final by beating American champion Judy Brown. However, in the final there was a false start and that upset Usha. When the race re-started, Usha was last. “At the fourth hurdle I began accelerating,” she says. By the eighth hurdle she was in second place. But at the tenth hurdle, through the corner of her eyes, Usha saw Judy striding ahead.

Eventually, Judy came second, Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco won the gold medal, while the Rumanian Cristina Cojocaru won the bronze, beating Usha by one hundredth of a second.

“Of course, it was the biggest disappointment in my life, but at the same time it was a turning point,” she says. Because of that loss the seeds were planted within her which would sprout years later when she started the Usha School of Athletics at Koyilandy in 2002, with the help of husband Sreenivasan and the present general secretary, P.A. Ajanachandran.

“I realised I missed out on an Olympic medal because I lacked the exposure and the experience,” says Usha, who eventually won 102 international medals, as well as the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri. “I wanted to give others the benefits and the facilities which I never had. Who knows one day one of my students will fulfill my dream by winning an Olympic medal?”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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