On a stroll at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, back in 1984, coach O. M. Nambiar said rather prophetically: “Now we can tackle anybody in Asia. Lydia (de Vega) will be no great challenge either. You will see what Usha can do in Jakarta.”
They were back from the Los Angeles Olympics where PT Usha had written a new chapter in the country’s athletics history by making the final of the 400m hurdles and eventually finishing fourth, missing the bronze by one-hundredth of a second.
The confidence that Usha gained in finishing fourth in the Los Angeles Olympics contributed to her coach’s optimism and prediction. Since Nambiar was routinely boastful, one looked towards Usha to see whether she concurred. She did.
The reference was to the Asian championships in Jakarta in 1985 and Lydia de Vega of the Philippines, the sprint champion of Asia then. The Filipino, glamorous and popular throughout Asia, was the 100m champion in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, beating Usha, and retained her hold at the Asian championships in Kuwait next year, without Usha in the fray.
Jakarta provided Usha with the opportunity to parade her undisputed talent over a mix of events, not all of them pure sprints that she was specializing in since making her Olympic debut in Moscow at the age of 16. A year before Los Angeles, in Kuwait at the Asian championships, Usha had added the 400 metres to her repertoire, winning it on her first attempt, beating Lydia de Vega among others.
With the Soviet Union-led boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics, Nambiar rightly reckoned that the 400m hurdles could be best suited for an Olympic medal hunt for Usha. She was prepared thoroughly but her technique was raw. And despite encouraging results in pre-Games meets, she fell short eventually.
But the stage was set for Jakarta next year. True to her coach’s forecasts Usha minted gold at will in the Indonesian Capital. Four of them in the individual events plus one in the 4x400m relay. Though India and Usha could have been gunning for a sixth gold in the shorter relay, that did not come off, the team finishing with the bronze.
She made it look easy, but a lot of hard work had gone into the preparations. “We were at Crystal Palace, London, for about three months during the preparatory phase,” Usha recalled the other day as we talked about her awe-inspiring collection of gold medals in the continental championships.
Today, two of her wards, Tintu Luka and Jisna Mathew are ready to make their mark in the Asian championships at home. Luka would be defending her 800m title at Bhubaneswar while 18-year-old Jisna is poised to make her senior Asian debut in the 400m and possibly be part of the longer relay Indian team.
“Shiny (Wilson) was with us in a batch of Indian athletes in London. We competed in meets in Europe and I went for the World Railways meet in Czechoslovakia also,” said Usha. “I won four of the six meets that I competed in Europe.”
That was the strong base that Usha had as she approached Jakarta. Usha said she ran 11 races including the heats in the four individual events – 100m, 200m, 400m, 400m hurdles – three days apart from the two relays in the Jakarta meet.
“Today’s athletes, I doubt would be able to run so many events in one meet,” she said. They look for the physio after every race nowadays. I didn’t have the services of a physio during those days. I used to go and have a bath after every race!”
The Usha-Lydia de Vega rivalry was huge during those days and the media had focused on the clash between them in the 100m at Jakarta, little realizing that there could be a different script in the end. It was not Lydia de Vega who finished second to Usha (11.64s after having set a national record 11.39s in the semis) but Thai Ratjai Sripet (11.95s) with the Filipino third at 11.96s.
In the 200m again which Usha won comfortably, Lydia de Vega was beaten to the fifth place. Usha won the 400m in 52.62s and the 400m hurdles in 56.64s, beating 1982 Asian Games champion M. D. Valsamma in the final in the latter event.
Such a commanding performance raised doubts that led to a series of dope tests in Jakarata. “I was tested after every final,” Usha recalled. “They were probably unconvinced that someone could win so many races.” Usha said it was a problem since each test led to a delay of two to two and a half hours (to provide a urine sample since dehydration makes it difficult to pass urine in a short period after the race.)
When Lydia’s father taunted Nambiar that Usha might not be able to run so many events, “Nambiar sir retorted, if she has to withdraw from an event we will do that only towards the end,” meaning she would surely compete in the 100m.
Much of Usha’s training was done at the Payyoli beach in Kozhikode district in Kerala during those days, preferring Delhi for the synthetic track if needed. Usha takes her trainees at the Usha School of Athletics to the Payyolibeach even today; a beach that had seen a legend shape up.
“I used to put in about three to three and a half hours in the morning and another two to two and half hours in the evening during training sessions. I have seen Sriram Singh (Montreal Olympics finalist in 800m) put in that kind of load in training,” recalled Usha.
Coach Nambiar had devised a mixed training schedule for Jakarta, keeping the hurdles training for only twice a week, said Usha.
“Weight training was minimal during those days, just light weights only.”
Was there any particular diet?
“Just ordinary diet. I used to always take a lot of fruit,” said Usha.
Today athletes demand dietary supplements. Usha said she used to take ‘chyavanaprasham’ (an ayurvedic preparation) in her days. “It used to cost Rs 15, now it is Rs 175 or so” for a 500m pack.”
In the Seoul Asian Games in 1986, Usha followed up her Jakarta success with another rich haul of four gold medals, including the 4x400m relay, and a silver which came in the 100m as Lydia de Vega avenged her 1985 defeat.
Usha has 23 medals including 14 gold from the Asian championships from 1983 through to 1998, the maximum by any athlete, male or female. Post-Beijing Asian Games in 1990 where she could get only an individual silver in 400m apart from two other silver medals in the relays, she took a break from athletics. After giving birth to son Ujjwal in 1992 Usha staged a comeback to track in 1993 but it was not until 1998 that she competed again in the Asian championships or the Asian Games.
She finally announced her retirement in 2000 to set up her school that has kept up the proud tradition that she had set even as she groomed Ujjwal to become a doctor which he is today.