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|August 22, 1998||
The Rediff Encounter / P T Usha
"I'm unstoppable now!"A Ganesh Nadar
P T Usha is a household name in India.
So I expected some difficulty in getting to meet her, so used am I to the high and mighty ways of Tamil Nadu politicians and filmstars. I phoned her residence, and was pleasantly surprised when she agreed to meet me the very next day.
From Tirunelveli to Payyoli, the journey by bus took fifteen hours. The buses were really uncomfortable, but the thought of meeting the legend of Indian athletics kept weariness away.
Once we entered Kerala, the view was breathtaking. Lush mountains, huge trees and plenty of rivers. In the monsoons this state lives up to its billing of 'God's own country.'
From Calicut, Payyoli is an hour away. A boy next to me in the bus pointed out Usha's school. A small side road led to her house -- named, what else, Ushas.
Absolutely simple -- that is the first impression you get when you see Usha. No airs about her. She comes across as an emotional person, the pent-up emotion gushing when she talks of 1988.
Born in Kuttali, 18 kms from here, Usha studied upto the 7th standard in Payyoli. She started running from the 4th standard, when she beat a sub-district champ in her school who was in the seventh. Her teachers encouraged her.
The turning point in her life came when the Kerala Government started exclusive sports schools. She joined the one in Cannanore in the VIIIth Std. 'I belong to the first batch' she says proudly.
Her first exposure at the International level came when she was invited for the World Junior meet. She won the gold in the 200 metres and the bronze in the 100 metres. She then captured national attention when she won two silvers in the 1982 Asiad. And just last month, she won four medals in Japan -- so that's it, medals spanning an incredible 16 year lifespan, which is all the more remarkable considering the short shelf life athletes have at the top.
The 1982 champ Iromi Zozoki of Japan, now a coach, said recently, "I remember the lanky girl finishing behind me in 1982, I cannot believe she's still running."
Foreign reporters were also stunned. 'Is it the same Usha?' they asked in wonder.
Usha shrugs it off, "When I won the heats, they announced it as Usha P.T., and that caused some confusion," she said.
She agrees with Milka Singh, who recently said that Usha could've done better if she had taken part in more international events. "In 1985 I went for the European circuit, the government sent me, in 1988 I could not go because I was injured."
That brings up the subject of 1988. She came under a heavy barrage of criticism. "It hurt then, now it doesn't bother me," she says, a faraway look in her eyes as if reliving the pain. "Nobody believed me," she recalls, of a time when she was accused of running scared of competition.
In 1990 she quit, and went home to her husband Sreenivasan, a former national kabaddi player. She had a baby boy, and the world forgot Usha. But Usha never forgot the track. How can a lion forget the jungle? How can a fish forget the ocean?
"I saw a lot of international athletes running after 30 plus, after child birth. They inspired me, particularly Evelyn Ashford," she says.
But deciding to go back to the track is easier said than done. There was a challenging look in her eyes as she related, "When I started again, nobody helped me. They tried to pull me down. The Indian altitude was -- Usha is finished. When I went to practise here, people teased me, they laughed. So I went to Patiala to train. There I found it much better."
In her difficult time her husband stood by her like a rock. "I had to lose a lot of weight -- and I did," she says.
In the SAF Games, 1995, she won a bronze in the 200 metres. In the SAF Games of 1997 she won a Gold in the 200 m. The golden girl was back, lustre undimmed.
The critics, the sceptics were all silent. And the awe, with which she has always been regarded by the average citizen, was upped several notches when she came back with those four medals from Japan this year.
"I am unstoppable now," she says, not a tinge of pride in the statement.
Does her phenomenal popularity weigh upon her? "In the eighties it did, when everybody expected me to do something, but now I am totally relaxed because nobody has any expectation from me," she says with a laugh.
In 1984, the National women's relay team had only Kerala girls. "The credit goes to the sports school and sports colleges -- Shiny and me were from the sports school. Valsamma and Mercy were from the sports college," she recalls.
The sports schools and colleges are still there, but we haven't seen any stars lately. But Usha insists that the talent is still there. "All my under 14 and under 16 records have been broken, so the talent is there, but my women's records are still existing. This is because the Nationals are the end-all for most athletes. Once they make it to that level, they concentrate on getting a good job and settling down. I am not blaming them, but with that kind of mindset you can't expect continued excellence," she says.
While Usha does speak her mind, she rarely if ever names anyone directly, preferring to say away from controversies. "There is jealousy everywhere," she says, "between trainees, between coaches. The only reason I rose beyond all is because I love athletics, I have a one track mind. Once I set myself a goal, I follow a punishing schedule. I never stop, however difficult it gets," she says, adding firmly, "You must have the mental strength to overcome all obstacles."
While cricketers find sponsors queueing up at the boundary line, it isn't as easy for athletes. "Sponsorship always helps, but what can I do? I can only show my performance, it is then up to them, I am not going to beg for it," she says, dismissing that hardship with a shrug.
When she is at the camps, she trains both in the morning and evening. At home she trains only in the morning, and jogs in the evening. The rest of the time, she is the ideal wife and mother, cooking, caring for her daughter, and whiling away the little spare time listening to film songs and devotionals.
For now, her focus is on the 400 metres. The 200, she says, just helps build you up for the 400, "my aim is to go under 51 seconds at Bangkok. Olympics?" she laughs heartily. "don't ask, it is too far away."
It is sacrilege, almost, to ask her about retirement. "Whenever that happens, I want to start a small sports academy, only for sprinters," says the girl who breasted the tape first as a teen, and is still beating the field two decades later.
As you leave her, you wonder why. And how. Wonder what the motive force is that keeps her going, long after logic dictates rest, retirement.
And then an image of Usha -- not as you have just left her, but on the track -- comes to your mind. The coiled strength of the body, the focussed gaze of her eyes at the lane straight ahead, the electric burst off the blocks...
And you think, maybe, when it comes to legends, you don't ask how, or why. You just stand and stare. And if you, like me, were privileged to spend a few moments in close proximity to one such, you count yourself fortunate, you find yourself changed...
Mail Prem Panicker
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