The legendary runner, P T Usha, loved by millions and an inspiration to all athletes in the 80s, was known as the Payyoli Express. Capt Seshadri profiles the prolific runner.
Kerala. God’s own country. A land of lush green forests, sprawling backwaters and a pristine coastline. Somewhere along the Malabar Coast of Kerala lies the quiet town of Payyoli. And through this town runs an express. An express that does not run on steam, diesel or electricity. An express, however, that has won 101 gold medals internationally.
Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha better known to India and the world simply as PT Usha, hailing from this little town, earned the title of the “Payyoli Express” through her immortal achievements on the athletics track. Such is her fame and popularity that not just streets but even babies are named after her.
The early 1980s were not a particularly conducive period for Indian athletes, far less a woman. International training facilities and experienced coaches were virtually unknown. Exposure to the world arena was very limited and there was a complete lack of scientific management. In this scenario, Usha started running at the age of 13. As early as in Class VII, she was so quick that she would beat the then District champion. During her training sessions, she would request male athletes to pace for her; however, they never asked her to pace for them, afraid that they might not be able to match her!
Motivation and training, both of which were largely self-developed, were crucial to success even at the National level. There was abundance of talent but no means to channelise it, recalls Usha. To quote her: ““After many years of experience in athletics, I am convinced that what we lack in India is not talent, but the basic, modern and scientific facilities. If we train our young Indian sports talents, nothing, not even Olympic medals, is unachievable.” She dedicates her achievements to her coach and mentor, OM Nambiar who, in 1985, won the Dronacharya Award for his contribution to Indian athletics.
Dwelling on the past, she recalls how she could have made it big in the Los Angeles Olympics if only she had had the opportunity to participate and benefit from more international exposure. Nevertheless, she became the first ever Indian woman to reach an Olympics finals, winning the 400 metres hurdles semi-finals in 1984. She rues the manner in which she lost the bronze by 1/100th of a second, simply because she didn’t lunge at the tape. She was not used to it, simply because she would usually win most of her races by margins of 10 m.
To crown a glorious athletic career, in 2002, after her retirement from active competition, PT Usha strongly felt the need to take sport to the grassroots level and train and share her experience with budding young talent. Hence was conceived the ‘Usha School of Athletics’ focussed on girl athletes who, she firmly believes, have the potential to bring home Olympic golds. Her school has 18 girls, mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, living on the residential campus, schooling during the day and training for over 5 hours every day, in the mornings and evenings. Funding comes purely from individual donations, but that does not deter Usha from pursuing her ambition and goals.
At a time when India was virtually unknown in international athletics, the Payyoli Express stood out as a shining example of what determination and hard work could achieve against all odds. An icon and a living legend, PT Usha swept the 100, 200, and 400 metres, the 400 metres hurdles, and the 4 x 400 metres relay at the 1985 Asian Track and Field Championship in Indonesia, pushing India up from 14th to 4th place in the overall championship list. Usha was honoured the same year with the Padma Shree and Arjuna awards.
The Payyoli Express, who still jogs unfailingly every morning, expresses her anguish at the dropping fitness levels in kids. The best way to get them fit is to organise family games like football, basketball and running, she feels. Dwelling on the bad food habits of today’s children, she talks about how she used to eat large quantities of potatoes for her carb requirement. The how the food in LA during the 1984 Olympics was so bland that she carried a bottle of pickles to add to her food!
When she is not running or training her wards, Usha loves watching movies and to clean and cook. Quite natural to her roots, fish curry is her favourite food. Simplicity personified, humble and humane, PT Usha has etched a name in Indian athletics that will stay in memory for a long time to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams