While growing up, it was fairly common to have the refrain: “Slow down, PT Usha,” thrown at us in school, whether or not its usage had anything to do with running. (In my case, it was because I talked too fast). Even if you didn’t follow professional athletics, or for that matter any kind of sport, living in India during the ’80s and ’90s meant that you couldn’t possibly be immune to the track record of this inimitable athlete. Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha is more than just an internationally acclaimed runner; in a land where athletics is an oft-neglected sport, she’s a household name.

Arguably one of the finest track and field athletes the country has seen, PT Usha was born on June 27, 1964 in Meladi-Payyoli village, near Kozhikode in Kerala. Her place of birth and the athletic prowess in the following decades together earned her the nickname “Payyoli Express”.

In 1974, as a participant at the National School Games organized by the Kerala Government, a 15-year-old Usha was discovered by athletics coach O.M. Nambiar, who went on to mentor her for the rest of her illustrious career. The young runner made her Olympic debut at Moscow in 1980, and while she didn’t qualify for the finals, she dazzled at the Pakistan Open National Meet at Karachi in the same year, earning 4 golds for the country.

PT Usha’s incredible progress on the field as she moved on from one event to another is the kind that creates history and super-hit sports movies. While the 1980 Olympics didn’t quite go her way, she performed superlatively in all Asian sports events of the decade. The 1986 Asian Games in Seoul saw her win 4 golds and a silver in track and field. Overall, from 1982-1994, Asia’s sprint queen hauled in 4 gold and 6 silvers in four Asian Games. Even more unbelievable was her run at the Asian Athletic Championships through the decade, where she won a total of 22 medals, more than half of which were gold (14, to be exact).

The Payolli Express going full steam
The Payyoli Express going full steam

The Golden Girl, as she came to be known thanks to her exploits on the track, had a dramatic equation with the Olympic Games. After Moscow, she went on to participate in Los Angeles in 1984, where she finished first in the 400m hurdles semi-finals. The finals proved to be a nerve-wracking story, though, as she barely missed the third place Bronze by 1/100th of a second in an unforgettable photo finish that spectators relive even today. Not only was she the first Indian woman to make it to an Olympic final, but her record of 55.42 seconds still stands as India’s national best.

PT Usha took a brief hiatus from athletics after a solid round at the Asian Track Federation meet in 1989 (4 golds, 2 silvers) and married V. Srinivasan in 1991, which was followed by the birth of her son, Ujjwal. In 1998, at the age of 34, she stupefied an entire nation at the Asian Athletics Championships in Japan, where she won bronze in the 200m and 400m events. She even bettered her own track record in the former, setting a new 200m national record. Part of India’s 4x100m relay race with Rachita Mistry, EB Shyla, and Saraswati Saha, her team won the gold medal at the same event, and set the current national record of 44.43 seconds.

Apart from the Padma Shri and Arjuna Awards, Usha garnered a total of 30 international athletic honors and titles for excellence in athletics, and more than 100 medals. Some notable ones include the Greatest Woman Athlete in the 1985 Jakarta Asian Athletic Meet and the Adidas Golden Shoe award for the best athlete at the 1986 Seoul Asian Games. Presently, the legendary sprint queen coaches young athletes at her training academy in Kerala—Usha School of Athletics. Amongst her students is Tintu Luka, a qualifier at the 2012 London Olympics, 800m women’s semi-finals category.

Though she actively retired from international athletics in 2000, her contribution and success in track and field athletics remain singular and legendary. One hopes that PT Usha will continue to encourage newer generations of Indian women to excel at this truly challenging sport.

Main Image Credit: Reuters

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