Happy Birthday PT Usha: A Record-Breaker & A Trend-Setter In Indian Athletics

Long before Neeraj Chopra struck gold with the javelin at Tokyo Olympics last year, India would have got its first Olympic medal winner in athletics post-Independence, had Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha not failed by the proverbial whisker.

Usha’s place in the annals of Indian athletics is firmly etched in any case, but what a remarkable feat it would have been by the then 20-year-old if she had won the women’s 400m hurdles bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She missed a podium finish by 1/100th of a second!

Though she missed the ultimate glory for any Indian athlete, it was perhaps the most defining moment in a chequered career.

As Usha, fondly called the ‘Payyoli Express’ and ‘Queen of Indian track & field’, turns 58 on June 27, it’s apt to look back on her career.

Coming from a humble background, the Kerala girl had health issues, including a heart problem. Lack of financial stability in her family didn’t help. But she overcame all odds with dedication, perseverance and hard work, and went on to become India’s greatest and most versatile female athlete who excelled in the sprints and also over 400m.

Her journey took off when, as a 4th grader, she was asked to compete with a 7th grader district level champion in the school competition. She won that sprint race, much to everyone’s amazement. Om Nambiar saw her potential and remained coach and mentor for the rest of her career.

At the age of 14, Usha scooped 4 gold medals — in 100m, 60m hurdles, high jump and 200m – besides silver in long jump and bronze in 4x100m relay in the 1978 Inter-State Junior Championship.

There was no looking back for Usha as she swept to victory in domestic events and then on the international stage.

She qualified for her maiden Olympics in 1980 at the tender age of 16. She was eliminated in the 100m heats, but that didn’t deter her from dreaming big.

The 1982 Asian Games at New Delhi was a major milestone as she bagged silver medals in both 100m and 200m events. She went on to rewrite national records in 200m and 400m, and struck gold in Asian Championships at Kuwait.

At the 1985 Asian Track and Field Championships in Jakarta, Usha bagged a record 5 gold medals in 100m, 200m, 400m, 400m hurdles and 4x400m relay, besides a bronze in 4x100m relay.

She dazzled at the 1986 Seoul Asian Games, bringing home three gold – 200m, 400m and 4x100m, all in record Games times – and silver in 100m.

Like all good things, Usha brought a halt to her career in July 2000.

But how could she walk away from athletics? Very aptly, she set up an academy in 2000 — Usha School of Athletics — in her home state Kerala.

Her dream is to unearth the next PT Usha and the first female Olympic medal winner in athletics.

On her birthday, the country will surely wish her all the luck to fulfil that dream.

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