PT USHA biography
PT Usha - Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha to use her full name - is one of India's greatest athletes, often called the country's "queen of track and field".
A graceful sprinter with long strides, she dominated Asian track-and-field events for most of the 1980s, winning 23 medals in all, 14 of which were gold, a crowd favourite wherever she raced.
Born in the village of Kuttali in Kerala, PT Usha studied in nearby Payyoli - which later gave rise to her nickname ‘The Payyoli Express’ - and her natural talent was discovered when she was nine.
At a school race, the fourth-grade student effortlessly went on to beat the school champion, three years her senior. It astonished the teachers and her abilities over the next few years earned her a place in one of the first batches of sport-oriented schools the Kerala government had set up.
PT Usha continued to dominate state and national meets and at 16 years old, became the then youngest athlete to represent India at the Olympics, when she was included in the contingent for the 1980 Games in Moscow.
Usha did not qualify for the final then but in the 1982 Asian Games, broke through to the conscience of Indian audiences when she won silver in both 100m and 200m.
She brought home the 200m silver at the 1983 Asian Championships and when she won gold in the 400m, her lifelong coach O.M. Nambiar suggested that she try out the 400m hurdles.
It would bring about one of India's most memorable Olympic moments on the track.
At Los Angeles 1984, a fitter, better-trained PT Usha was a force to be reckoned with.
Having breezed into the 400m hurdles final with impressive performances in qualifying, Usha missed out on the bronze medal by just one hundredth of a second.
After overcoming a false start, the Indian run the final stretch like a 100m sprint and remembers that though her leg was ahead of eventual bronze winner Cristieana Cojocaru, she had not dipped her chest into the finish line.
It was a moment that brought PT Usha on the cusp of sporting glory and made her a household name in the country at just 20 years of age. More importantly, the feat ensured that the nation discovered the fascinating world of athletics.
The 1985 Asian Championships at Jakarta saw PT Usha win five gold medals and a bronze in a span of five days, her last two golds coming within a half-hour of each other.
At Seoul in the 1986 Asian Games, she went on to win four golds, each in Asian record time, and a silver. She would also take back the chants of her name in both the Asian capitals.
However, two years later at the Seoul '88 Olympics, Usha could not replicate her exploits of four years previous - slipping out early of the reckoning after finishing seventh in her opening heat.
Usha announced retirement in 1990, but not before adding to her legend with four golds and five silvers at the 1989 Asian Championships and 1990 Asian Games.
There was a twist in the tale, though. Inspired by four-time Olympic gold medallist Evelyn Ashford and supported by her husband Sreenivasan, a former national kabaddi player, PT Usha decided to make a return to the track.
There were glimpses of her incredible talent when she won the 4x400m relay silver medal at the Asian Games in 1994 and four medals at the 1998 Asian Championships. With the Sydney 2000 Olympics beckoning, it seemed like she had a last hurrah left.
However, PT Usha’s knee problem, which had to be operated upon in 1995 following an injury, resurfaced, rendering her out of action for nearly four months. With that, all chances of another comeback diminished for the Queen of Indian track-and-field. PT Usha announced her retirement, this time for good.
“I am satisfied with what I have achieved. All what I aimed for, except for the Olympic medal, I achieved. I now want to ensure that one of my students wins one!” the legendary athlete had stated in an interview referring to the ‘Usha School of Athletics’.
Her academy in Kozhikode, Kerala today guides young athletics hopefuls and hones their skills. It’s an endeavour aimed at ensuring India’s future athletic stars can reach the same heights that she did.