Setting her feet on the international track at a tender age of 16, the contribution of Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha in bringing India on the international sports radar is something that few other athletes in the country have managed.
Forever changing the way women in athletics were perceived in India, she went on to become one of the most iconic athletes that India has ever produced and paved the way for many aspiring sportspersons.
Hailing from the sylvan town of Payyoli in Kozhikode, Usha acquired the famous moniker, ‘Payyoli Express’ and became a household name across the country with her scintillating sprinting prowess in the early eighties.
Following an illustrious career which stretched over two decades, the Queen of the Indian Track and Field retired in 2000 and donned the garb of a mentor. Usha had decided to translate her years of athletic experience to guide and groom young sporting talents in Kerala.
“After many years of experience in athletics, I am convinced that what we lack in India is not talent, but basic, modern and scientific facilities. If we train our young Indian sports talents nothing, not even Olympic medals, is unachievable,” says the legendary athlete to The Better India.
Usha’s hour of fame came during the 1984 leg of Olympics in Los Angeles, where she’d won the 400m hurdles heats, making India’s Olympic dream almost come true. At the final, however, she came fourth, falling behind the eventual bronze medallist by 1/100th of a second, setting an Asian record of at 55.42 seconds, which still stands today as the Indian National Record.
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“Everyone thinks that bagging an Olympic medal is a difficult task. I would have certainly made it in the Los Angeles Olympics if I had a little more exposure in the 400m hurdles. It was lack of experience that cost me the gold medal. If India goes for a real, systematic and scientific approach, I am sure the country has a great athletic future,” she explains.
Following her retirement, Usha decided to change this lack in the sports system and envisioned an institute dedicated to advancing promotion and practice of sports at possible levels with state-of-the-art facilities in athletic skill development, with her husband V. Srinivasan and other sports enthusiasts.
Thus, Usha School of Athletics came into being in 2002, where young girls across the state who showcased exceptional potential are given intensive and systemised residential training completely free of cost.
More than sportswomen who had already bagged medals and accolades at various tournaments, Usha’s focus rested on those undiscovered talents, who could be chiselled with intensive training to achieve exceptional results.
“Everyone wants to invest in a sportsperson who has already made a name. This way, lots of potential athletes in the country never see the light of the day. My vision was to identify young girls below 14 with promising future and nurture them with essential mentoring and guidance,” Usha says.
Starting off with 12 girls and a small office that was opened in collaboration with Rotary club, the funding for the institute largely depended on government grants and sponsorships and individual donations. The girls were trained in a field nearby.
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“As time passed by, the girls’ performances were beginning to show great results at various state and national athletic meets, which led to renowned names like Mohandas Pai and Kumari Shibulal volunteering to sponsor five to six athletes. Even Infosys co-founder Sudha Murthy had come forward to support our cause and donated an amount of Rs 20 lakh. Alongside, Sobha developers helped us built the school hostel, where the girls currently stay,” she says.
While the school has facilities like mud and synthetic tracks that were sponsored by the state and central government respectively, Usha explains that financial shortages hinder her vision of making the school an international level training facility.
“It takes close Rs 50 to 60 lakh every year to train the girls, for everything at the institute is free. We have been donated high-tech training equipment by Mumbai-based Olympic Gold Quest that has been lying unused since we don’t have the infrastructure to put these to use,” she sadly mentions.
In order to fix such shortcomings, Usha has teamed up with crowdfunding website Milaap and aims to raise funds to provide valuable resources for young athletes with high achievement goals through new specialised training programs and training aids.
At present, the school houses 16 young girls who spend day and night training under the mentoring of Usha, out of which rising athletes like Jisna Mathew and Tintu Luka have already garnered international attention with their sprinting prowess. In her sporting endeavour, Usha is supported by with two assistant coaches, hostel warden, physiotherapist, massager and school managers who leave no stones unturned for the girls’ future.
If you wish to be part of Usha’s dream of nurturing young athletes cross international frontiers, you can contribute to her campaign on Milaap here.
Your contribution could help the budding sportswomen in India inch closer to making the Olympic dream a reality.