While she clocks the timing of Abitha Mary Manuel, one of her trainees during a practice session at Tau Devi Lal Stadium, PT Usha is repeatedly approached by some of the trainees at the stadium. The training athletes stop during their laps and come to touch her feet. For somebody who has won ten medals in Asian Games, including four gold medals in Seoul Asian Games, 1986, Usha has been India’s most celebrated athlete. The past 17 years have seen Usha in a coaching role.
“I guess coaching is tougher than competing as a runner. As a coach, you have to understand the feelings of a runner and motivate them a lot. As an athlete, when you go to compete, that moment stays with you. But as a coach, when you go to track, you learn what is required to improve. When I used to train under my coach Nambiar sir, he would understand each of his trainees game.The same goes for me. Though training methods have changed given the technological advancements, the core remains same. I love running and that’s what I have done all my life and will continue to do,” shares 54-year-old Usha as she heads towards her trainees once again.
Two years after she hanged her boots, Usha started Usha School of Athletics in a rented facility at Quilandy village in Kerala in 2002. The school was later relocated to Kerala government-provided land in Kinaloor. Her most famous trainee, Tintu Lukka, has been double Asian Games silver medallist and 2012 London Olympics semi-finalist. In the last 17 years, Usha has trained more than 90 athletes. “When I decided to start a academy, I faced a lot of hurdles like, finding a rented facility to managing funds for training athletes. I wanted to train athletes at a young age and this meant that medals would come after some time. Things like sponsorship also only come your way when medals come.
Later, we got some sponsors including, Mohandas Pai, former CFO of Infosys, and Sudha Murthy, chairperson of Infosys Foundation. Murthy ma’am is the only sponsor which we have now. But the main thing has been seeing talents like Luka and others. Luka competed in two Olympics and reached semi-final in 2012 Olympics. In Rio Olympics, Jisna Mathew competed at the age of 17. I had competed in my first Olympics in Moscow at the age of 16. When I used to train, I use to train at the Payyoli Beach and would run in waves and near the railway track. For newer generation athletes, the most important thing is the need to have competition and that has to be done at grassroots level,” shares Usha, who was famous as ‘Payyoli Express’, during her career.
The last two years have seen athletes like Neeraj Chopra and Hima Das winning medals in U-18 World Athletics Championships and Usha believes that getting exposure outside India is the key for Indian athletes to aim for an Olympic medal. In 1984 Olympics, Usha missed the medal by a whisker when she finished fourth. “An athlete like Neeraj Chopra is a rarity in our country. I saw him throw himself in training for world championships and he has a very good technique. Hima Das has also done well. Athletes like Manjeet Singh did well in Asian Games. The key for Indian athletes is to compete out of the country. The disappointment of missing a medal in 1984 Los Angeles Olympics is 100 per cent there but maybe one of my trainees can win a medal in Olympics. That’s the reason I wanted to coach,” says Usha.