One of PT Usha’s earliest dreads was the thought of reaching late for coach OM Nambiar’s training session at 6 am. An old-school coach and a stickler for discipline, Usha came under Nambiar’s wings when she joined the hostel of the Sports Division in Kannur as a Class 8 student. “If anyone reached at 6:05 am, they would be punished. You had to run with your pair of spikes held over your head around the ground. I had to run like that once or twice just after I joined the hostel, but not after that,” Usha recalls.
To reach on time, it was crucial to wake up by 4:45 am at least. The hostel had just two toilets and three bathrooms for 80 trainees. A long bathroom queue was not an excuse the retired air force sergeant-turned-coach would accept.
“I would get up really early and stand in the queue. At times I would tell someone to hold my place in the queue and have a quick shut eye before my turn,” Usha says.
The police ground, in the middle of the city, did not have any structures blocking the view. “If you were punished the whole town literally knew about it,” Usha says.
Coach Nambiar was a taskmaster but also incentivised training. “Whoever did the warm-up drills the best would get a toffee. I am the one who got the most toffees,” Usha says of the early days of the successful coach-athlete partnership which began in the late 1970s. A fourth-place finish at the Los Angeles Games and multiple medals won by Usha at the Asian Games and Asian Championships earned her the moniker of Golden Girl. Nambiar, her coach, mentor and constant shadow became a household name in the 1980s.
Earlier this week Nambiar was named as a Padma Shri winner. At 89, he is suffering for Parkinsons, rarely gets off the bed and needs assistance to walk. “When he heard about being awarded the Padma Shri he was very happy. He felt he should have received it earlier, but better late than never,” Suresh his son says. Nambiar won’t be able to travel for the award ceremony, Suresh confirms. “Haven’t thought about it yet. Maybe a family member will have to represent him. The only time he leaves the house is for a medical check-up.”
On Monday, hours before the list of award winners was officially announced, Usha had visited her coach. “We had gone for the engagement of my husband’s niece. It took place close to Nambiar sir’s house. So I dropped in. He insisted that I have a cup of tea,” Usha says. “Whenever I meet him a lot of memories come flooding back.”
Changing the diet
In the 80s, the support system wasn’t great so Nambiar had to wear many hats, one of them being a nutritionist. When training at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, Nambiar hit it off with the wrestling squad. “Wrestlers were big into badam milk. He would always get a glass for me. After a point the wrestlers would keep badam milk for me,” Usha says.
It was Nambiar who asked Usha, a pescatarian to start consuming eggs and adopt a non-vegetarian diet. At first, Usha found it hard because she didn’t like the smell of eggs. But as ‘sir’ was insisting, she knew it would only benefit her on track and during training. “I was a vegetarian who would eat fish. In the sports hostel, I would not eat the boiled egg and would store it away in my bag. But eventually, Nambiar sir found out and gave me a yelling. There were so many eggs in my bag and they started smelling,” Usha says. Over the years, Usha got used to the egg-flip – raw egg mixed in a glass of hot milk and stirred till it froths – which Nambiar would make for her every other day. “I would close my nostrils with my fingers and drink it. As Nambiar sir was giving it to me I drank it.”
By the early 1980s, Usha knew she needed Nambiar by her side. The concept of a personal coach was unheard of in India, Usha says. Once an athlete was part of the Indian team, coaches at the national camp took over. Usha was adamant to change the system. She first tried to convince athletics federation officials, but when that failed she went to the sports ministry. Finally, she knocked on the door of prime minister Indira Gandhi. “The prime minister was not in her office but I met PC Alexander (principal secretary) and told him why it was crucial for Nambiar sir to travel with me. Mr Alexander said, ‘don’t worry, it will be done’.”
Decision to target hurdles
This was around the time Nambiar had proposed the idea of Usha focussing on the 400 metres hurdles for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics which was a year away. It was a smart move by the coach as the event was relatively new and was to be part of the Olympics for the first time. Usha was still smarting from bagging only the silver in the 100m and 200m at the Asiad in Delhi and the coach was keen to challenge his ward.
The Asian Track and Field meet in Kuwait is where Nambiar tested Usha’s potential by making her run in the 400 metres. She won the gold at Kuwait City, which made Nambiar confident of being on the right track.
“Nambiar sir told me I have a good stride pattern and he said I have the potential to become a top 400 metre hurdles runner,” Usha says.
Such a wonderful moment for all of us students of Nambiar Sir. The 1st Dronacharya Awardee in Indian athletics history now also the 1st athletic coach to be conferred the PadmaShri. It is a proud moment for all coaches in our country. I’m immensely grateful for all his teachings. pic.twitter.com/dvEHiShXpv
— P.T. USHA (@PTUshaOfficial) January 27, 2021
Inconsolable at Los Angeles
How the tilt at Olympic glory ended in a heart-breaking fourth place finish at Los Angeles has been retold over the years. In Usha’s latest retelling her coach was inconsolable.
“At first when they announced the top-three finishers my name was third. Then they started going through the slow-motion camera for half an hour. I was in the dope room when it was officially announced that the Romanian came third. Nambiar sir broke down. He wouldn’t stop crying. I was hurting inside, but I didn’t want my coach to see it. So I held myself together and consoled him. ‘Don’t worry we will win a medal at the next Olympics’ I told him.”
Usha and Nambiar minted medals in Asia, but the Olympic medal remained an unfulfilled dream. ‘A great regret’ is what both have called it.
‘If only Usha had dipped at the finish line’, he rued. ‘Maybe I didn’t get enough exposure’, she consoled herself.
Yet as her coach, a Dronacharya award winner, is bestowed with a prestigious civilian award, Usha recalls the man who stood out in the crowd because he was wearing a cap and coat in the humidity when she first spotted him at a sub-district meet. “Without Nambiar sir’s guidance I would not have been able to achieve what I did for the country.”