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PT Usha: India’s Golden Girl of Athletics

Having entered track and field athletics at the age of 16, she is credited with popularising the sport across India. Though Usha retired in the year 2000, her records remain unmatched till date. She stays connected with the field through her athletics training school.

inspiring-lives Updated: Jul 11, 2019 10:08 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PT Usha’s most glorious performance occurred at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where she won the 400m hurdles heats.
PT Usha’s most glorious performance occurred at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where she won the 400m hurdles heats. (Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)

Daughter of EPM Paithal and TV Lakshmi, Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha was born on June 27, 1964, in Koothali in Kozhikode, Kerala. She was brought up in Thrikottur, and later lived in Payyoli. During childhood, she witnessed poverty and battled ill health at various stages. Her fate changed in 1976 when the Kerala government began a women’s sports division in Kannur, where Usha began training under coach OM Nambiar.

Early Career

Young Usha was a quick learner. In 1978, she won six medals at the inter-state meet for juniors. In the same year, she won 14 medals at the Kerala State college meet. She won the individual championship in the 1979 National School Games. In 1980, she made her international debut in Karachi, at the Pakistan Open National Meet in which she won four gold medals. She made her Olympic debut in the 1980 Moscow Games, however, she finished a lowly fifth in the 100m race.

Winning Streak

Usha immediately made a comeback in 1982, during the World Junior Athletics Championship in Seoul, South Korea, where she won the 200m and secured a bronze in the 100m. Her most glorious performance occurred at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where she won the 400m hurdles heats. She missed a chance to win India’s first track-and-field bronze in 400m hurdles by a mere 1/100th of a second. Her coach attributed to the second start that spoiled her rhythm.

Bouncing back at the 1985 Asian Championship in Jakarta, Usha won six medals to set a record for the most gold medals won at a single event in the championship. In the 1986 Asian Games, Seoul, she struck golds in the 200m, 400m and 4X400m relay, with new game records. She also settled for the 100m silver , having lost to arch rival Lydia de Vega.

Overcoming Injuries

Usha suffered from a heel injury during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Despite the pain, she pushed herself to run but failed to make it to the final. She recovered and participated in the 1989 Asian Track and Field Meet where she won four golds. Usha wanted to retire the same year but decided to compete in the Beijing Asian Games where she won three medals. In 1991, she married V Srinivasan and the couple was blessed with a son in 1992. Usha returned to the track for the 1998 Asian Track and Field meet in Japan where she set a new national record in the 200m race (23.27s).

Legacy

After retirement from competitive sport, India’s first sportswoman to enter an Olympic final, opened the Usha School of Athletics – a nonprofit organisation that trains future athletes. She has won the Arjuna Award (1983), the Padma Shri (1985) and was named Sportsperson of the Century as well as Sportswoman of the Millennium by the Indian Olympic Association. With 101 medals to her name, Usha’s legacy remains unmatched.

Interesting Facts:

1. Young PT Usha was a bright student during her school years, and her parents thought that she would become a teacher like her mother. Initially, her father was apprehensive of her taking up sports as he didn’t want her to get injured and knew very little about the world of sports.

2. In 1983, when PT Usha requested that OM Nambiar be her coach, the government approved her request. As a result, she became India’s first athlete to have a personal coach. Nambiar was always proud of Usha’s potential and performance, and credits his own popularity to the athlete.

3. AK Kutty, who coached athlete MD Valsamma, made a statement that if Valsamma had trained on a synthetic track, she would have beaten Usha. The latter took this as a challenge, she kept the media clipping under her pillow and used it to motivate herself before the 1984 Olympics.

4. At the 1985 Asian Meet in Jakarta, Usha’s arch rival at the time, Lydia de Vega as well as her father continuously complained about the Indian sprinter after every race, suspicious of her wins. Even though Usha was subjected to dope tests after each race, she won five golds and a bronze.

5. PT Usha’s record as an athlete remains unmatched even till date. Due to her performance and contribution to track and field, she has been given several nicknames over the years including Payyoli Express and Golden Girl, as well as the title ‘Queen of Indian track and field’

Sources: ptusha.org, IAAF.org & media reports

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