That winning feeling...
On the eve of the Asian Championships, P T Usha looks back at her unforgettable 1985 campaign
Nostalgia is a balm that would bring temporary relief in these painful times for Indian athletics. Genuine champions are nowhere on the scene while gold medals at Asian-level competitions come at a premium but there was a time when one Indian athlete strode the arena like a colossus, sweeping everything before her. P T Usha was the name that evoked awe, affection and respect everywhere for Indian track and field.
From sprints to hurdles and relays, the Usha touch turned everything to gold in the mid-eighties and one of her awe-inspiring achievements came at the 1985 Asian Track and Field meet in Jakarta, where she competed in six events, winning five gold and a bronze – in the 100M, 200M, 400M, 400M hurdles, 4x400M relay (with Shiny Abraham, Pushpa Nachappa and Vandana Rao) and 4x100M relay (bronze with Ashwini Nachappa, Vandana Rao and M D Valsamma). As India get ready to host the 20th edition of the championships in Pune this week, Usha looks back at those heady days that brought her a whopping 23 medals from five Asian Championships, 14 of them gold. Excerpts:
When did the idea of competing in six events occur?
Normally, 100 and 200 are my events -- these are the events I ran at the 1982 Asian Games also. Slowly 400 was brought into my schedule as Nambiar sir (coach OM Nambiar) wanted me to run the 400M hurdles at the 1984 Olympics. Hurdles wasn’t completely new to me — I had run 60M hurdles and 80M hurdles during my school days. I used to be fascinated by the beauty of hurdling — there was this athlete called Mercy who was a good hurdler and I used to watch her and wanted to try out the event. Nambiar sir taught me hurdling though we didn’t perfect my technique then.
You might be aware that I had a solid base, having competed in different events in my formative years. Besides running and hurdling, I have done long jump, high jump and even shot put. As I moved up in my career, we started specialising in certain events. By the time the Asian meet came along, I was good in all four individual events – 100, 200, 400 and 400M hurdles. I was setting records in each of these events and didn’t want to drop any. I was physically fit and my will power was never in question. I had trained hard and was very confident.
Thanks to my fourth place finish at the Los Angeles Olympics, I got the opportunity to run a few races in Europe – in Hungary, Czech Republic and Austria. Competing against the Europeans also made me bolder. So we decided to go for it at Jakarta – four individual events plus the two relays.
What was it like when the news of your attempt spread in Jakarta?
There was excitement but there were also people who tried to deter me, like the father of Lydia de Vega, my main rival then, from the Philippines. He was coaching his daughter and told Nambiar sir that one athlete won’t be allowed to compete in so many events. Sir retorted by saying that in such a case, she will run three events. Of course, nobody stopped me from competing in many events.
How did you balance out the training for such varied events as 100M and 400M hurdles?
My focus had shifted to 400M hurdles by then and we worked on 400 flat as well as the hurdles. We did solid work during off-season on my speed endurance. My 100M start used to very good early on – I remember my first Olympic 100M race in Moscow when I was just 16. I lost the race but was ahead of my bigger rivals in the first 15 metres thanks to my start. But I was working on approaching the first hurdle in 23 strides and working on it affected my start in the 100M -- I became slower in the first 10 metres but was able to make it up in the second half of the race. In contrast 200 was a cruise, it was the easiest event for me. 400 was very tough, so was 400M hurdles. You needed special preparation for these races. You need concentration, proper rest and recovery.
How confident were you of succeeding in your quest and how did your quest pan out?
I was fully confident. I was 100 percent certain of my success. I was the dominant force in my individual events in the continent and was able to convert it in to gold medals without hassle. But the 4x100M relay was very tough. When I got the baton, we were behind but I was able to turn it around and fetch a bronze medal for the team. The exchange was smooth and I quickly covered two girls in front. Ten more metres and we could have done even better.
Would you say it was your best career performance? Can anyone repeat it now?
I can say it was one of my best performances. Competing in six events and winning five gold medals and a bronze is not an easy task. I don’t think anybody can replicate it now. When I look at my trainees now, I see them struggle after putting in 90 percent of their effort. Their bodies will be stiff and they feel sluggish. To achieve what I did, you needed all out efforts every day. It will be a hard task for anyone who ventures to do it these days. It is god’s grace is all I would say.
I remember the 1983 Asian meet in Kuwait, I was running the 400M for the first time. I had just finished second in the 200M and didn’t feel like running the 400. Just 40 minutes separated the two events. I just sat there, relaxing, having a tea and an orange. Then suddenly, I decided to run. I said if I win the gold, I will dedicate it to Lord Guruvayoorappan. I ran a good race and I did win that one. Divine intervention, maybe you can call it.
You almost came close to repeating the feat at the Seoul Asian Games, winning four gold and a silver...
There is a story behind that too. In our country, if you come up with a good performance, people will praise you to the skies. But if you don’t do the same in your State meet, the same people will rubbish you. Before the Seoul Games, there was this Goodwill Games in Moscow. Though it was off-season and I had done no speed work, I decided to compete as all the top athletes were there. I struggled due to the weather as well as the lack of preparation and finished eighth. I came under fire from all quarters and people even wrote me off. I knew where I stood and I was determined to prove them wrong. I did prove them wrong, winning four of the five gold medals India won at those Games.
You would have run nine races (including heats and semifinals) in about five days then. It must have been a daunting task physically. What kept you going?
For me, keeping the mind fresh was important. Physically, if the recovery is not there, the stride pattern will get affected. It was tiring but I was winning one gold medal every day and those wins opened up my mind, keeping it fresh. The winning feeling kept me going.
Looking back, do you wonder how you managed to accomplish such a tough task?
Not really, but I do feel surprise at our struggles these days. During my time, I used to run the 400M in 51-52 second range and 100M in around 11.39. Even now, more than 25 years later, athletes are running around the same range. I wonder why today’s generation can’t go better.