By Harihar Swarup
P T Usha was India’s fastest woman, winning a slew of medals across Asia. Then she began to groom a new generation of female runners. Now she has been nominated to the Rajya Sabha But sports will always be her life, says, Usha, 58.
Usha was 20, when she raced across the tract at the first-ever women’s 400M hurdle finals at the 1994 LA Olympics. She’d had little access to world-class facilities or exposure tours, yet she almost medalled.
The heartbreak of a bronze missed by 1/100th of a second was relayed home in high—shutter-images. The start; the run; the leap; and the loss. And then, when it was all over, she stood, rail thin, but proud of defiance, her coach O M Nambiar, by her side.
The young woman became a symbol of perseverance. If a young athlete from a non-descript village, with little supporting infrastructure, could race past some of world’s best, anyone who could aim for glory through discipline and dedication, legions of school girls were told.
Usha lives by those two words: discipline and dedication. “I have lived sports since I was 13”, she added. Her home town is in Payyoli, Kerala. “I am 58 and I haven’t been without sports in my life since then”.
Usha has since won championships and broken records, earned the nickname Payyoli Express, used her story and her platform to encourage more girls and women to take up sports and break barriers. The Usha school of Athletes, which she opened in 2002, offers young girls with talent a level of grassroots support she couldn’t dream of even while ruling the track in Asia in the 80s.
“We are all very happy. She is someone who was with me at so many international meets. I always also ran the third lap in relay and handed baton with a lead to Usha”, says a former middle- distance runner Shiny Wilson, now a general manager with the Food Corporation of India.
Vasudevan Bhaskar, captain of India’s victorious 1980 Moscow Olympics hockey team recalls Usha’s transformation from a shy young woman to a strong communicator and unwavering passion for athletics. In 1982, as sports officer with the Southern Railways based in Madras, Bhaskar hired young Usha to lead the athletics team.
“I remember going from Madras to Payyoli to hand over the appointment letter. It was monsoon in Kerala and I walked through some fields”, says Bhaskaran, 71, speaking from Chennai. “The family was happy that she had been posted to Kozhikode so she could continue her training under Nambiar uninterrupted.”
Usha succeeds Manipuri boxer and Olympic medalist Mary Kom as the sporting presence in the Rajya Sabha
It is a matter of pride, Bhaskaran says, that Usha is the first sports icon from a southern state to get Rajya Sabha nomination. “She is a highly deserving, is at the right age and has been part of Indian coaching system. She can visualize what athlete needs. She can help secure more funds. And she is a go-getter”, he says. (IPA Service)