“When I was studying in 7th standard, one chapter was there where we studied about the Olympics. I used to think, ‘what are the Olympics?’ I never thought I would actually participate in the Olympics.”  

— PT Usha, in an interview with Scroll.in

It was a case of so-close-yet-so-far for PT Usha at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

There were little doubts that the Kozhikode-based sprinter was destined for greatness ever since she made a bow on the national circuit. She was a star performer during inter-state meets, setting national records along the way. Her first big success came at the 1982 Asian Games, bagging silver medals in 100m and 200m. At the 1983 Asian Championships, Usha clinched the gold medal in 400m to stake her claim to international glory.

Though she had a disappointing outing at the world championships, Usha managed to beat another celebrated runner MD Valsamma in the trials to qualify for the Olympics.

Usha’s penchant for the grand stage held her in good stead in the 400m hurdles: She clocked 56.81 seconds in the heats and 55.54 seconds to win the second semi-final heat and entered the final as one of the medal contenders.

But the thrilling race finish would end in heartbreak for Usha. Cristieana Cojocaru of Romania and Usha crossed the line at almost the same time, but the former’s desperate lunge took her to the podium. The Indian was piped by 1/100th of a second for the bronze medal. Nawal Moutawakal of Morocco won gold and Sweden’s Ann Louise bagged the silver medal.

Having spoken about the race on multiple occasions, the now 54-year-old thinks she could have easily stood on the podium that day.

The athletes had to start again after one of the competitors had committed a foul, something that upset Usha’s rhythm. She believes that there were several other factors that affected her chances of finishing on the podium

“We would jealously look at the athletes from other countries enjoying fabulous amenities; they had the latest equipment at their disposal,” Usha had told the Equator Line magazine. “We wondered if we too would one day have access to such facilities.”

Also read: PT Usha’s tryst with the Asian Championships, the event that shaped her legacy

Usha also explained how her diet and nutrition at the time was far from ideal. “I remember it – the pickle we [eat] in Kerala called ‘kadu manga achar’. That and some sliced fruit. I was not accustomed to baked potatoes or half-boiled chicken with soya sauce and some other typical American food,” Usha said.

“No one had told us that in LA we would get only American food. I had no choice but to eat rice porridge without any nutrition supplement, and that definitely affected my performance in the last 35 metres of my event since I couldn’t sustain the energy level.”

But like all great sporting champions, Usha came back strongly. A year later at the Jakarta Asian Championships, she blazed a trail of her own winning five gold medals and a bronze, sweeping the 100m, 200m, 400m and 400m hurdles. In the 400m, she also set a new Asian record of 52.62s.

The 1986 Asian Games in Seoul was another phenomenal success for Usha as she won the 200m, 400m, 400m hurdles, and the 4x400m relay gold. In the 100m race alone, Philippines’ Lydia de Vega edged her out at the finish line. The tears that flowed in Los Angeles had set the tone for the best years in the life of the ‘Payyoli Express’.

“I didn’t just run one event at one championship and win a medal. It was not a flash in the pan. Right through the ‘80s and for over a decade, I won gold medals for India,” she said in an interview with The Indian Express.

“I peaked from 1984 onwards. To win gold after gold and medal after medal at the Asian Games, the Asian Championships and at Grand Prix events in Europe was no mean feat.”

More than 35 years on, it is almost unimaginable that an Indian challenged the who’s who of world athletics on the track at the biggest stage and nearly got herself an Olympic medal.

Athletics and Usha could never be separated. She now trains aspiring runners for Olympic glory, which remains her mission. But, for fans, the lingering feeling of ‘what might have been’ from the 1984 Games still remain.

In this interview with Scroll.in, Usha spoke to Smitha Nair about how tough the journey was in her early days, her first Olympics in 1980, *that* race in 1984 and more.

Reporter: Smitha Nair | Video Editor: Sujit Lad | Camera: Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan | Design: Akshay Lokhande, Joel George

Watch PT Usha’s race from the 1984 Olympics here: