V. Pandeeswari is a fighter to the core. T. Saravanan tracks the stunning performances that brought the athlete name and fame.

The girl first entered the playground because she had been sent there for exercise to relieve her wheezing. But what started as an exercise turned into a passion, and V. Pandeeswari rose to fame as the sprinter who defeated P.T. Usha in the Bangalore national games.

“But for my father Velu and my uncle Swaminathan, a medical practitioner, I would not have been in this position,” beams Pandeeswari. “When my breathing problem went out of control, my father took me to his cousin for medical advice. He asked me to get involved in some physical activity to see whether I get rid of the problem,” she says.

In a matter of 25 days, her dedication caught the attention of many at the ground, including athletic coach N. Singaraj. “My father accompanied me to the ground every morning,” she says. “I jogged and then cycled one round on day one. The rounds increased to two on the second day and it continued that way till I discovered I was able to complete 25 rounds of running and then equal rounds of cycling with ease on the 25th day,” she says.

“She had the fire to achieve greater targets,” says Singaraj, who teaches physical education in Madura College Higher Secondary School. “Her mental strength is phenomenal. My first meeting with Pandeeswari happened at the Arasaradi railway ground. I warned her not to ride cycle on the ground and sent my boys to catch her. But they could not do the job as she dropped the cycle and sprinted away. She was only 11 years old then. I was impressed with her running style,” he says.

From Singaraj she got valuable inputs to become a good sprinter. A podium finish in her very first appearance in an athletic meet, organised by the Rotary Club, strengthened her confidence and propelled her to work harder. Her wins in the Junior State meet got her into the state team that participated in the national meet in Rohtak. Her 4x100 relay team won gold for Tamil Nadu.

In the South Zone athletic meet at Kakinada she was selected for the inter-zonal championship in Delhi. “On the first day Pandeeswari could not perform well in the 100m because of the poor quality of spikes in her shoes,” says Singaraj. Unable to find a suitable new pair, the coach scrubbed the metal spikes all night to bring them to size. She finished first in the event.

In 1995, Pandeeswari competed in the South Asian Federation games in Chennai. She qualified for the 4x100 relay event by virtue of a bronze medal in the 100m at the national meet. The team also featured P.T. Usha and won the silver medal.

“She worked hard to prepare herself for tougher challenges,” says Singaraj. “I made her run on sand with weights on her back. Every day she climbed up and down the 365 steps on the hillock in Pasumalai at least five times to perfect high-knee action.”

Pandeeswari also ran in the Junior Asian Track and Field meet in New Delhi in 1996 and won gold medals in 200m and 4x100m relay and a bronze medal in 100m. In the Junior Asian meet held at Singapore two years later, she bagged a bronze in 200m and a silver in 4x100m relay.

The young star’s career came to an unexpected close. She was part of the 4x100m relay team that won the gold medal at the Asian Track and Field meet in Indonesia in 2000, but she lost a place in the team for Sydney Olympics when her father suffered a heart attack and needed her at home. She retired at the age of 25.

“Retiring at the age of 25 is unpardonable,” says Singaraj. “I never expected this. But her family commitments forced her to take this decision. Had she stayed in the circuit for a couple of years, she would have brought more laurels for the country,” he says.

Pandeeswari feels that India has failed to prepare quality athletes for major events like the Olympics. “There should be more camps and the planning should start much before,” she says. “Finding sponsors is a herculean task. The government should concentrate on grooming young athletes by providing proper food and better training facilities. Then, we too could win medals at Olympics athletics events.”

Pandeeswari now leads a peaceful life in Dindigul with her husband, Gerald, who owns a poultry farm, and her two children. She has plans to coach poor children. “I have completed a certificate course in coaching,” she says.

Already her four-year-old son is showing glimpses of his mother’s brilliance, running and hopping from one place to another. Another sprinter in the making!