The response couldn't have been more spontaneous. No prodding, no baiting. All it needed was the mention of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and the recollection of her first encounter with an Indian athlete.
Nawal El Moutawakel spoke about PT Usha as if she had known her closely for years. Her words reflected her respect for her Indian counterpart.
El Moutawakel recollected every moment, etched deep in her mind, not only of her race to history when she became the first African
and Arab woman to win a gold at the Olympics, but also of how she was enthralled by Usha's ability on the track.
Speaking a day ahead of the Laureus Sports Awards, besides her happiness on that eventful day in Los Angeles, she vividly recalled how sadness gripped her after seeing Usha missing out on a medal by a whisker in the 400m hurdles.
"My first contact with an Indian athlete was in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where PT Usha missed a medal by 100th of a second," said the hurdler, who is one of the Laureus Academy members. Usha finished behind bronze medallist Cristeana Cojocaru of Romania. "I felt happy for me, for winning the gold, but sad for her. I cried because I wanted both of us to be on the podium and because we come from countries where we don't have Olympic medallists who are women."
Such is her humility that she had rated Usha ahead of her to win the hurdles final. "She was so good I thought she would win the race. But unfortunately, I did," said the International Associations of Athletics Federations (IAAF) council member. The 49-year-old Moroccan revealed that she looked up to Usha. "She's my role model, and for women in Asia and India, she is a hero. The way she fought back and became champion of Asia was heartening. And she lasted for so long."
El Moutawakel felt Usha inspired a generation of athletes from India. "After her, many Indian women took up athletics. They may not have reached her level, but looked confident," she said. "Recently, I met athletes from India in Guangzhou who looked strong and their eyes were full of hope. And later, Usha also laid the foundation for poor girls of India to take up the sport."
*The trip has been sponsored by Laureus