Meeting the Payyoli Express

Today I met an Olympian. To articulate more, I have breathed the same air as an Olympian (yeah, Shahrukh Khan has hit the ceiling, so better borrow his words). Well, is there a big deal in that ? Kerala has a rich history of producing athletes who go on to represent India at the biggest sporting event in the world.  But what if the person I met is one of country’s finest athlete ever. P.T Usha, the Payyoli Express was in town associated with an exhibition called the Usha Ex-2013. The event portrays the life and times of P.T Usha through pictures, news reports, articles and caricatures. The aim of the event is to let the new generation know more about our proud asset and inspire them by spreading the message of determination and hard work Usha had shown to achieve whatever she did.

I am writing this not out of a sudden influx of love towards athletics, like the way some people all of a sudden take a liking to Hockey once the Indian cricket team fails. I can’t recall whether I have watched  live telecast of P.T Usha running at least once. But from a very young age, I knew that she was the best athlete we have had in track and field events. I often think that our generation of Keralites were somewhat blessed that they knew who was the best on each front. Yesudas, the best singer. I.M Vijayan, the best footballer, Ananthapadmanabhan, the best cricketer, Kanai the best sculptor, Nampoothiri, the best painter, M.T Vasudevan Nair, the best writer (debatable), but what about the next, the best actor ? I’m not even going there !!!

A beautiful caricature depicting Usha's childhood.

A beautiful caricature depicting Usha’s childhood.

I went to the exhibition without any expectation that P.T.Usha, herself would be there. But she was there, crowded by a small group of people, she was standing near the entrance of the exhibition hall. I also wanted to greet her, but decided to bide time going around the wonderful collection of articles and pictures. Right from her birth all the interesting anecdotes were there. The highs and the lows, the struggles and the triumphs all were depicted nicely.  When she was born, the astronomer who had read her horoscope said that she would be going on to make her parents proud. The most talked about coach of Usha is O.M Nambiar. But before him people like Balakrishnan Master and G.V Raja played crucial roles in identifying her potential and bringing her up through the school games.

1984 Olympics 400 m hurdles finals.

1984 Olympics 400 m hurdles finals.

Under Nambiar’s guidance, she went on to become India’s brightest athlete. The exhibition had a detailed description of the 1984 Los Angels Olympics disappointment. She went into the event with a nation genuinely believing in her abilities. She had qualified into the finals of the 400 hurdles very easily by winning the semi final in a commonwealth record time of 55.54 seconds. But in the final she was not off the block quickly enough and had a  lot of catch up to do at the end. However, she did manage to come back strongly and finish third, almost. But she lost it by a whisker, 1/100th of a second, to  Christina Cojocarau of Romania. A medal at the Olympics remained elusive for her.  They were also playing that epic race on a T.V screen in loop but the pictures were not that sharp.

Usha With Nambiar

Usha With Nambiar

But the defeat didn’t deter her commitment to the sport as she practiced even harder and went on to win 4 gold medals at the 1986 Seoul Asian games. She earned another nickname, Golden Girl. She married V. Srinivasan in 1991 and took  a break from sports. But she came back to participate in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.  Even after retiring as a professional, she did not stay away from the sport. She opened the Usha School of Athletics in Koyilandi, near Calicut. The school is the breeding ground  for many of India’s current and future Olympians. One of Usha’s favourite disciple was there at the exhibition venue itself, Tintu Luka, the national record holder for 800 metre race and a medal contender for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

It took me a while to go around and see all that was on display. When I came back to the entrance, there was no P.T. Usha there. Has she gone ? I took a walk to the other side of the hall and there she was interviewed by a small T.V crew. I felt relieved.  I waited for about 5 minutes as they went through their list of stock questions one by one and she was answering them in that familiar,  slightly male kind of voice. Then as she was passing by me, I smiled and managed to grab her attention. I said something along the lines “Great to see you, Madam”. She also smiled and asked me whether I had gone around and seen everything on display.  That moment was too big for me to let it pass by without a click (I’m not a click-aware person, if that adjective holds). So I duly asked her for a photograph with her and she was more than happy to oblige. There were not many people there at that time. But that somehow started a chain reaction and everyone wanted a click with her.

Well, not statues at the exhibition !!!

The exhibition started on the 30th of October and will end on November 3.  If anyone near Trivandrum happens to read this, do make sure that you visit the Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium to relive the great moments produced by a quintessential athlete that has given the sport her life and soul.

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