When Tintu Luka took gold in the Asian Championships a few weeks ago in Wuhan, the cameras panned over to a woman in her late forties, standing in the stadium, smiling wide, the joy of the win etched out on her strong face. That gold mattered as much to her as it did to the 26-years-old Luka. It was the Payyoli Express herself, making a stop at Wuhan to ensure her protégé took the next step to her success. Today, on the eve of her birthday (June 27th), Sports Rediscovered takes a look at the illustrious career of ace sprinter PT Usha.
4th Place Finish at the Olympics echoing Milkha Singh’s Performance
Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha is most remembered for coming within touching distance of a podium finish in the 1984 Olympics held in LA. In what was seen as an echo of Milkha Singh’s 1960 performance, Usha lost out on the bronze medal by 1/100th of a second.
PT Usha – The early days
Born in 1964 in Perambra, Kozhikode district of Kerala, PT Usha emerged into the sporting scene with a record breaking performance at the Asian Track and Field Championships.
Success in Class IV
Her tryst with the track started at a young age. When she was in class IV, she outran the sub district champion in a school race. Following success in district level competitions, at the age of 12, PT Usha joined the GV Raj Sports Institute in Kannur. Here, she was reared under the tutelage of Drona awardee O Nambiar. With rigorous training and dedication, she went on to win the 100m and 60m hurdles in the U-14 category of the state level championships in Kollam.
At the age of 16, she caught attention by defeating 100 metres national champion, 28-years-old Rita Sen, in Ajmer. It was following this success that she was selected to be a part of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Her stint in Moscow, however, was not very notable. She could not do much on the 100 metres and 200 metres tracks. However, those who wrote her off after the debut debacle were in for a surprise. PT Usha was not one to fade away.
PT Usha compensated for the performance at the Pakistan Open National meet in Karachi in 1980. Usha grabbed four gold medals, in the 100 metres, 200 metres, 4 x 400 metres and the 4 x 100 metres relay events.
The Payyoli Express gathers steam
The year 1982 proved productive for her, with a gold winning performance in the 200 metres, and a bronze in the 100 metres events in the Junior Athletics Championships in Seoul. She then dazzled in the Delhi Asian Games, taking two silver medals in the 200 and 100 metres events, and later on won the 400 metres gold in the 1983 Asian Championships, Kuwait on her debut.
As per her request, the Kerala government transferred Nambiar to the Mercy College in Palakkad where she was studying, to ensure a hassle free training environment for her.
Olympics Heartbreak :
In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the 400 metres hurdles event was introduced for the first time for women. Clocking 55.7 seconds in the selection trials held in New Delhi, Usha was all set to make her second Olympics appearance.
In the qualifying heats, she came behind American champion Judi Brown in 56.81 seconds. During the semi finals, however, Usha got the better of Brown, stopping the clocks at 55.94 seconds to come in first. Thus, at the age of 20, she became the first Indian woman to enter the finals of an Olympic event.
In an edge of the seat photo finish, PT Usha missed a place on the podium by 1/100th of a second. Usha, who was trailing last when the race started (due to a delayed start), covered ground quickly to stand second by the eighth hurdle. At the tenth hurdle, however, Judi streaked past Usha.
Though it was a moment of despair for fans across the country to see the young athlete miss the medal, her record breaking effort (55.42 seconds) was still seen as a huge leap for Indian sports.
Usha came back from the heartbreak with increased vigor and strength. In the 1985 Asian Track and Field championship in Jakarta (now known as the Asian athletics championship), she took six medals for India (including 5 gold and 1 bronze), a feat, that remains till date unmatched.This championship, that also saw the emergence of another ace Indian athlete , Shiny Wilson.
PT Usha took gold in 100 metres, clocking 11.64 seconds to come ahead of Thailand’s Rajtai Sripet. She then took gold in 200 metres (23.05 seconds) and outran compatriot Wilson (53.32 seconds) in the 400 metres event for another podium finish (52.62 seconds). In her pet event, the 400 metres hurdles, she clocked 56.64 seconds to beat fellow Keralite MD Valsamma (57.81 seconds). Her fifth gold came in the 4 x 400 metres relay event (3:34.10). She thus set a world record for the most number of golds by a female athlete in a single meet.
Further Asian Success
This was followed by a triple gold in the 200 metres, 400 metres and 400 metres hurdles events during the Seoul Asian games. She was also a part of the 4 x 400 metres relay team that took gold in the championship. In an interesting aside , PT Usha alone had done better than most Asian nations at the games in terms of number of gold medals.
Injuries and the Return :
In the 1989 Asian Track Federation meet in Delhi, she took four gold and two silvers. After a short break, and after rubbishing rumours of a possible retirement, the Keralite participated in the Beijing Asian games, taking three silver medals in the competition.
A year after tying the knot, she came back on the athletics scene, with a national record breaking performance (bettering her own record) in the 200 metres event at the Asian Tracks Federation meet at Fukkowakka, Japan. She was also a part of the 4 x 100 metres relay team, along with Rachita Mistry, EB Shyla, and Saraswati Saha, which set a national record of 44.43 seconds en route to gold.
However injuries caught up with the Payyoli Express and while Usha continued to fight hard , the end of one phase of her athletics career was in sight.
Giving Back to the Sport
With a total of 101 international medals in her kitty by the time she decided to hang up her boots, PT Usha dedicated her time and energy in the nurturing of young minds, and opened the Usha School of Athletics (USHA) in Kayamkulam, Kerala. The success of Tintu Luka is directly attributable to the efforts of PT Usha and it is a remarkable achievement for PT Usha to develop the next generation of athletes.
PT Usha was also conferred with the Padma Shri and Arjuna Award for her achievements.
PT Usha – A household name
Growing up, the name PT Usha was often thrown at us, while reprimanding us for running around at home. Given the indifference faced by track and field events in the country, the household usage of her name (even as a sarcastic rebuke), speaks eons of the legacy of the sprint queen of India. Today, on the eve of her birthday, Sports Rediscovered thanks her for her contributions to Indian sports and wishes her all the very best for the future.