THE sports instructor of Thriottur Upper Primary School was casually overseeing little girls running about and trying to catch one another. What surprised him was the leopard-like alacrity and movement of a tallish ten-year-old girl who was obviously beyond the reach of anyone her age. From then on he began to groom the girl who ultimately, with the help of Madhavan Nambiar, her other excellent coach, became the Sprint Queen of India: Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha or P. T. Usha for short.
Usha, the second daughter of her parents, was born in Payyoli, Calicut district, Kerala. But it was her maternal grandfather who named her 'Usha' after a character in a poem that he was reading when Usha was born.
Little Usha tasted blood in Cannanore in 1977. She won a bronze in the high jump as well as in the 100 and 200 metres by equalling the then national record at the Kerala State School Meet. But before she went to Cannanore, many of her relatives actually cautioned her parents that Cannanore was far away, and it was not nice for girls to take up sports. But her parents had complete faith in her, and they stood by her. In fact when Usha was a little girl, her father used to wake her up early in the morning and go jogging with her. Usha, who had no ambition of becoming an athlete then, used to make excuses to avoid getting up so early in the morning, but her father was too clever for her. Usha was good in sport but she was also good in studies, in fact if her sports career had not taken off so well she might have become a doctor.
Later in 1977, Usha created a national record in the Kerala State Athletic Meet at Kottayam, when she finished the 100-metre race in 13 seconds flat. Again at the All-India School Meet at Trivandrum, she helped Kerala lift the championship trophy for the first time in 23 years. In the 1978 National Athletic Meet, Usha triumphed with four gold and one silver medal. Success followed success, and Usha the Moscow Olympics as the youngest participant. She didn't do too well in Moscow, but the experience of seeing other world class athletes in action was invaluable.
Usha missed the bronze in Los Angeles Olympics by a fraction of a second. As she sat alone that evening in her room, she received a message from Indira Gandhi, the then PM: "Don't worry. You may not have won a medal, but you have won the hearts of your countrymen."
When it was time for the Asian Games in Seoul in 1986, everyone had written her off because she had performed quite poorly in the Goodwill Games in Russia. But she proved them wrong by winning four gold medals and one silver.
Usha has always had a very mature attitude towards success and failure: "Winning made me more and more interested in athletics. Slowly, running became a part of my life. My only aim was to better my timing. . . . my aim is not to defeat anybody. That has never been my intention. I only want to improve my timing."