In a career that is advancing step by step, Tintu Luka fixes her eyes on the big league

It is a calm forenoon at the Usha School of Athletics on the hilly slopes of Kinallur, about 35 km from Kozhikode. The white, single-storey school’s milieu is an ample spread of bottle green rolling on for miles. In its modest courtyard grow rows of fresh, young spinach, yam, plantain and papaya and these find a place on the menu here. Most of the dozen athletes on board are attending academic classes. But the star is here. Tintu Luka walks in quietly, an unsure smile on her face.

After an encouraging outing at the London Olympics, Tintu is back at her alma mater, her days yet again defined by hours of practice, warm-ups and work-outs. At her maiden Olympics, the young athlete managed to create a buzz. In a sport where India has had hardly anything to cheer about, except for the one instance when her mentor and coach P.T. Usha missed a medal by one-hundredth of a second in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Tintu made many curious when she made it to the semi-finals of the 800m race.

Encouraging run

Her Olympic quest may have ended in the semis, but now, months after the performance, she looks at it dispassionately, but happily. “I like to watch my London race,” she says. That was a race where she followed her coach’s instructions to a large extent and ran according to the plan. A chink in Tintu’s technique, which many have pointed out, is the vigorous movements of her upper body while running, and she believes that did her in at London. “Those movements became prominent in the last 80m of the race and it becomes uncontrollable when I am tired. Usha chechi constantly tells me to work on it.” Her entire run was marked by them earlier, but she has now brought them down considerably and hopes to eliminate them.

Her career has advanced step by step rather than climbed in a steady, determined rise. Often touted as the next big athlete after P.T. Usha, Tintu has stumbled more often than she would have liked. Her disappointing performances at the Commonwealth Games, where she finished sixth, and at the Asian Games, though she won a bronze, are often picked on by critics. However, Tintu says she has learnt from those events. “I have had all those experiences earlier, so when I went to London, there was no fear of the big stage.”

For the 23-year-old from remote Irutty in Kannur, every outing on the track has also been about gaining confidence. She is self-assured when she has Usha by her side, guiding, planning and pepping her up. No conversation with Tintu is complete without mention of ‘Usha chechi’. Athletics was restricted to school meets for Tintu until she stepped into a new world at Usha’s school. “If there is one turning point in my life, it was getting selection here,” says Tintu.

“I remember it like yesterday. I have been here for nearly 11 years, having joined on May 12, 2002,” she says. She and her friend Shilpa are the only ones left of that batch. Responding to a newspaper advertisement, she and 600 others came for the trials. “Forty-five of us were selected for a 15-day camp, out of which 12 made it,” says Tintu. If she is perceived as a bright star who just needed a platform to make it big, Tintu says that was never the case. “I was this skinny girl who struggled to get into the 12. I was not even among the top runners then.” Her unflinching devotion to Usha and the sincerity with which she follows her coach’s guidelines have played a vital role in moulding Tintu.

Meeting her mentor

“Initially, we would clamour to stand at Usha chechi’s side during the warm-up. She gave me that competitive spirit and positive energy. She constantly tells me to focus the mind on running and winning.”

At international events, it is often Usha’s words that see her through. “When we are in the flight or in the room she constantly talks to me about her experiences. On the day of the event, time just doesn’t move, but her words give me the energy.” The coach keeps her company, warming up and working out with her, and leaves Tintu to herself just before the race.

The national record holder has now fixed her eyes on the next Asian Games and World Championships. Of course, at the next Olympics, she wants to make herself proud. “More than the medals Usha chechi always concentrates on the timing. She sets the time for me every year,” says Tintu. Her personal best is 1:59:17, while at the Olympics she clocked her season’s best, 1:59:69. Tintu would love to see her best time a second or two lower.

Though races make her life, Tintu proudly says her studies never suffered. Usha, she says, is particular about academics. “She arranges tuition in subjects we are weak in. Most of us here get good marks,” says Tintu.

Focussed on athletics, she makes only infrequent visits home. Her sports-loving parents encourage her. “After the Olympics, I went home for a week. Otherwise, it is just for a few days every year. But I don’t miss home much, this is my home.”