Last month, Tintu Luka put away her much-loved blue tracksuit and training shoes for the first time since she turned a teenager and bid farewell to the place she has called home for a major part of her life.
Tintu, the most famous product of the Usha School of Athletics, left the academy which she had joined at the age of 13, to take up a job with Southern Railways.
These days, one of the country’s most recognisable athletes sits behind a desk at the Divisional Regional Manager’s office in Salem, Tamil Nadu.
As an officer on special duty (sports), 29-year-old Tintu is coming to terms with a day job which starts at 9.30 am and goes till 5.30 pm. The multiple Asian medallist reported for duty on January 30.
The shift from track to office desk was prompted by a recurrence of the inflamation of a tissue in her left heel, a condition medically known as plantar fasciitis. There were days when Tintu would struggle to walk, let alone jog. The pain in her heel began in May last year and visits to specialist doctors and physiotherapists could only provide temporary relief. It ruined her chances of representing India at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games.
With no immediate relief in sight, Tintu spoke to her mentor PT Usha, the former track star, and decided to leave her alma mater, stepping out of her comfort zone.
Tintu, hailing from Valathode village in Irrity taluk of nothern Kerala, was part of the first batch of a dozen runners selected by Usha during a trial in Calicut in 2002.
“All these years, all I knew was to train, compete, train; follow a regimen, a diet, a schedule. Everything was aimed towards winning medals. I have been at the Usha school since the age of 13. I don’t really know a world beyond that. So it was a big decision to leave and take up a full-time job with the Railways. Going to an office is a new experience,” Tintu told The Indian Express.
Though her athletics career has been halted for the time being, Tintu has stopped short of announcing her retirement from the sport. She had landed a job with the Railways in 2012 and on paper, was designated as a chief reservation supervisor in the Calicut division. However, as an active athlete, she had the luxury of availing what is called ‘on-duty leave’ 365 days of the year.
Learning to be self-reliant
Like a fish out of water, she is now learning to do things on her own without the support of a retinue of support staff, all at her beck and call. “Right now, I am staying at a hostel which is at a walking distance from my office. So I eat at the hostel. I have applied for accommodation at the railway quarters. Once I move in, I will have to do many more things on my own. At the Usha school, I didn’t have to worry about anything and never even had to step out of the premises except for competition or a medical check-up,” Tintu said.
For someone used to a protein-rich diet measured to the last calorie, Tintu says she continues to be conscious about what she eats. The weighing scale display, she assures, has not been a cause of alarm yet. “I do have a dream of running one last race. So I need to watch my diet,” she says.
Her 11 medals at the Asian level, including two gold, helped the Usha academy gain a reputation and it was designated an official national camp.
Tintu says, in her heart of hearts, she hopes to return to training but has reconciled to the fact that she is not getting any younger and any comeback is subject to complete recovery from the heel injury.
“I have an unfulfilled dream of winning a gold in the 800 metres at the Asian Games. I have won a silver and bronze. At the 2015 Asian Athletics Championships in Wuhan, I won my first senior gold in the 800 metres at the Asian level. I, however, wanted to be an Asian Games champion in the 800m. I am not sure if that will be possible but I am keeping my fingers crossed,” Tintu said.
She avoids following results of track-and-field events as it demoralises her owing to the uncertainty about her comeback. “My last race was the final of the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar in 2017 which I could not finish as I had high fever. I was diagnosed with dengue and sidelined for three months.”
Coach Usha has been in touch with her since she left the school. Two days ago, she called to check how Tintu was coping with the heel pain.
“One last race is what Usha chechi also hopes for… a gold medal on the big stage. I have not officially retired. Let’s see. She also wanted to see me become an officer in the Railways. By God’s grace, I have got that designation,” Tintu said.