Flying Rani, Golden Girl, Payyoli Express, with heels on fire she swayed like a swift tiger on the track, inspiring every Indian girl to achieve what they dream. International medals galore and 1,000-plus awards she has won at national and state-level meets.
Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha is not just a champion in the world of athletics. This legend has triumphed in life’s race, overcoming humble beginnings, lack of facilities, financial troubles, and illness to become one of the greatest athletes to have represented India in the Olympics.
PT Usha was born on June 27, 1964, to a poor family living in a Payyoli village near Calicut, Kerala. She did not have a privileged childhood and faced several health issues. Her life started with struggle: “My earliest memories are those of jumping over fences as a child” says PT Usha. Attempting the extraordinary was, perhaps, a natural offshoot of what was otherwise an ordinary childhood.
One day, while she was in class IV, her school teacher asked her to run with a student of class VII who was the school champion. While Usha had no experience of running in a race, she ran as fast as she could — and came in first! None of the onlookers could believe that Usha had outrun the school champion.
Without any formal training in running, PT Usha participated in several inter-school and inter-state competitions. And would win the champion’s trophy each time. 1976 turned out to be a watershed year in PT Usha’s life when athletics coach O M Nambiar noticed her at an award ceremony of the National School Games. The coach was impressed with “her lean shape and fast walking style” as he told later in a Rediff.com interview and as he began coaching her, the rest, as they say, is history.
Quick results followed and she won five medals at the inter-state meet for juniors, in Kollam in 1978, with four gold medals in 100 m, 200 m, 60 m hurdles and high jump, silver in long jump and bronze in 4 x 100 m relay. In the year’s Kerala State college meet, she won 14 medals. She went on to win multiple medals at the 1979 National Games and 1980 National inter-state meet setting many meet records. In 19080, PT Usha participated in Pakistan’s National Games at Karachi, for which Chinese and Indian athletes were invited. Usha won both the 100 m and 200 m sprints and received commendation from the media. Though she could not make a mark at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, she became the youngest Indian sprinter to compete in an Olympic event at a young age of 16.
Though India’s Golden Girl began her international career at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, she rose to glory only two years later when Asian Games were held in New Delhi in 1982. She made the country proud by winning the Silver medal in the 100 m and 200 m event. PT Usha turned into the Queen of Indian Track and Field in 1985 when she bagged five gold medals at the Jakarta Asian Meet. She had won gold medals in 100m, 200m, 400m, 400m hurdles, 4X400m relay and also a bronze medal in the 100m relay. The icing on the cake in her athletic career came in the year 1986 at the Seoul Asian Games when she notched four gold medals and one silver medal.
The highest point of her career, undoubtedly, has to be the moment when PT Usha finished 4th in 400 meters hurdle in Los Angeles. In almost a repeat of Milkha Singh’s 1960 feat, there was a nail-biting photo finish for the third place, the closest any Indian female athlete has ever come to win an Olympic medal. As destiny would have it, the ace sprinter of India had lost the bronze medal by just 1/100th of a second. As she sat alone shattered, that evening in her room, PT Usha received a message from the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi “Do not worry. You may not have won a medal, but you have won the hearts of your countrymen.”
PT Usha has won as many as 101 international medals and is employed in the Southern Railways as an officer. In 1984, she was conferred the Padma Shri and the Arjuna Award. Currently, she coaches young athletes at her training academy “Usha School of Athletics – the spring of a great nation” in Kerala, including Tintu Lukka, who qualified for the women’s semi-final 800m at the London 2012 Olympics.
Some Interesting Highlights from PT Usha’ Life:
- Holds World Record for most gold medals earned by a female athlete in a single track meet. Usha secured 5 gold medals, in the 100, 200, and 400 metre, 400m hurdles, and 4 × 400 m relay (1985 Asian Track and Field Meet at Jakarta, Indonesia).
- Won 4 golds and 1 silver in 1986, Seoul Asian Games, claiming for herself the title of Asia’s sprint queen.
- Became the youngest Indian sprinter, aged 16, to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
- Some of the key awards PT Usha was deservedly honored with are:
- Arjuna Award, 1984
- Padma Shri, 1984
- Greatest woman athlete, 1985 Jakarta Asian Athletic Meet
- Best Athlete in Asia Award, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1989
- World Trophy for best Athlete, 1985, 1986
- Adidas Golden Shoe award for the best athlete, 1986 Seoul Asian Games