Dawn on a quiet beach in Kerala. The first light shows a narrow sandy path running through swaying palms. A lithe runner in a grey tracksuit comes into view, loping effortlessly ahead of a short rotund man who struggles to keep up. P.T. Usha and O.M. Nambiar make an odd twosome: one five foot seven inches of lean muscle, the other short and running to fat. Ten years ago, when they first came together, the athlete found it difficult to keep up with the coach. Now, with great patience, she tolerates his tortoise-like pace. With long measured strides she darts ahead, then jogs back and exchanges a few words with the coach before pacing forward again.
The Asian gold medal winner is on her regular three and a half kilometre run which begins at her home and ends at the Payyob beach near the midpoint of the Malabar Coast in Kerala. "I love being on the beach," she says, "it's my favourite training spot. The vastness gives me a sense of freedom which I don't experience anywhere else. After training on sand, running on the track seems so simple. I literally float, as, unlike sand, hard ground offers no resistance. My first experience of running on sand was long before I was introduced to disciplined result-oriented running."
Usha was born in 1964, and grew up in a village by the Kerala seashore. "I had to take just twenty steps from my bed before sand was beneath my feet. When I ran to school it was on sand. If I ran a house hold errand it was on sand. Every step I took was on sand. Unknowingly, I went through some very effective and rigorous training." Eventually her athletic potential was recognized and when she was 12 she joined the Sports Division Scheme instituted by the Kerala State Sports Council. In her first year, Usha turned out to be an exceptional talent. In 1977, the thirteen year old was the individual champion in the women's section at the All India Rural Sports meet, winning the 100
metres, the 200 metres, the long jump, the high jump and helping the 4 x 100 metres relay team to victory. From the first, Nambiar was her trainer. "Her talent was always quite visible," he remembers. "In school when I made the girls practice starts she invariably led the pace. But more than the talent, what really struck me about her was her discipline and diligence. She always did the exercises as shown and never played truant."
O.V. Madhavan Nambiar was born in 1936 in Kerala. He joined the Indian Air Force in 1955, there revealing his sporting talents by becoming the decathlon champion of the Air Force. In 1966 he became coach of the Air Force Athletic Team, and in 1976, the same year that Usha joined the Kerala Sports Division, Nambiar was appointed a coach there. This began their long and fruitful athletic partnership, up to the end of Usha's running career.
P.T.Usha's rise to the top was quite phenomenal. But from the time she made her mark at the national level Usha had to weather many a crisis and injury in the long path to success. She won her first international events in the Pakistan International meet in 1980. But the world began to notice the lanky girl from Kerala when she won two silver medals at the New Delhi Asian Games in 1982. She followed up these triumphs with numerous medal winning efforts in various national and international events. However, it was in the newly-introduced 400 metre hurdles at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1982 that Usha revealed her tremendous potential and gave a chance for the world to look at her emerging as a truly world-class athlete. She narrowly missed (by one-hundredth of a second) being the first Indian track and field athlete to win an Olympic medal for India.
A year later, Usha, by now a mature athlete, won five gold medals at the Jakarta Asian Track and Field meet. Then at the Seoul Asian Games at Seoul in 1986, she won four gold medals. But then there was to be a slide in her fortunes, and an injury-stricken Usha suffered a first-round defeat at the 1988 Olympic Games. Surrounded by criticism, it seemed that Usha would give up athletics once and for all. But, a born fighter, Usha was to prove her critics wrong as she made yet another remarkable comeback at the 1989 Asian Track and Field
Game's at New Delhi, helping India to place second in the overall medal tally.
In 1990, in Beijing, Pillavalakanki Thekaparambil Usha ran her last race on a cool autumn evening at the Asian Games. Sixteen years after the little girl realized she could outrun just anybody her age. Her final event, the women's 400-metre relay, gave Usha her third silver medal of the games.
Usha did more for Indian athletics than several generations of runners. And she bid adieu to the track in the same simple and dignified manner in which she scorched it in search of excellence. Usha made no special pleas for recognition. She concentrated on what she had trained herself to do: run.