P.T. Usha has the experience, Tintu Luka has the talent and together they have the fire. Read about their plans for the London Olympics

The Los Angeles Olympics is a memory that P.T. Usha simply cannot erase. It was the end of a race, of a dream. Right from the time Usha began running, an Olympic medal was her goal. This did not change right through her career, when she sped past so many national and international milestones.

Even years after she hung up her running shoes, with over a hundred international medals in her kitty, Usha is still chasing her dream. This time it is through her protégé Tintu Luka.

There is something similar to both Usha and Tintu, in their life before athletics, struggles, in their fierce ambitions and of course, great talent.

“Tintu is more fortunate. It was much tougher in my case as there was hardly anyone to help or guide me in the early days. In Tintu's case we are there, ready to help her achieve her goal. Looking at her, her progress, I have often wondered what my performances would have been if I had this kind of support. I want to give my trainees all the facilities and benefits I never had,” says Usha, as Tintu listens intently.

The demure, frail-looking Tintu who hails from Irutty, a quiet village in Kannur district, is the eldest of three girls. Her father, a mason and mother, both excelled in sports at school. Despite their hardships they encouraged the girls to take up athletics seriously.

Rare find

Tintu was brought to Usha School of Athletics at Kinalur, near Kozhikode, nine years back. Usha was then scouting for talent and had placed an announcement in newspapers calling for talented girls. “My uncle had seen this announcement and that was how I came for the selection,” says Tintu who speaks very softly and in very few words.

Tintu did not do well at the selections. Usha remembers the fragile, undernourished girl, “Tintu finished last of the 12 girls who participated in the various tests we had prepared. It clearly showed that she needed to strengthen herself physically, there was need to change her style of running, which was very crude. But I saw in this girl a willingness to work hard. I liked her attitude.”

Training has transformed Tintu. She is now lean, toned, muscular and a much stronger athlete. She has shown steady progress, surpassing the targets that Usha sets regularly. And for this Tintu has really had to sweat it out.

Is Usha a hard taskmaster? Tintu smiles sheepishly, glances at Usha who nods, perhaps an indication that she could speak. “Ushachechi is very strict when it comes to training. Out of the field she is very friendly. She sits and talks with us and is there to help us,” says Tintu.

Usha smiles and adds, “See, there are no half-way methods in training. I'm really tough when it comes to this. I don't allow them to talk while training and even during meets when they should be absolutely focused. This is a discipline I have tried to inculcate. That is why you do not find them chatting or whiling away their time during meets. There are complaints that Tintu does not talk or give interviews and all that. I would like them to be like that.”

Usha is not just a coach for her trainees; she is a guide, counsellor and much more. She is there at hand to offer solutions for handling everything from the stress of competition, to fall in motivation, self-esteem issues, diet, forming a positive attitude and much more. Usha's approach is not the kind you find in coaching manuals. It stems from years of experience

“I think it is not enough if a modern athlete is just talented. He or she should have the will to work hard and also must be mentally tough. Mental skills demand as much attention and training as physical technique. This provides the edge in competitions. The mind should be clear and focused,” is Usha's recipe for a champion.

Strict norms

In the case of Tintu and the other trainees in her school, Usha has fixed some strict norms. “It's a long time since I went home,” says Tintu. “And even when I do I don't stay there more than a couple of days.” Usha steps in, “I don't want Tintu or the others to lose focus. When they are at home they tend to relax, their minds get crowded with so many things. If their parents want to meet them they can always come to the school.”

Every athlete is bound to go through pre-competition anxiety. Does Tintu feel this when she steps on the track? “I'm much better now. Earlier, I used to be so tense that I felt that my legs would not move. Now, I think I'm strong mentally.”

“This is something we are working on. There was a time when Tintu was absolutely weak. Now she is much, much better. She is also very prone to injuries and so needs to be handled with great care,” adds Usha.

The 800 metres is Tintu's pet event though she also competes in the 400 m. Tintu is now the emerging Indian star brooking hardly any national competition in the 800 metres. Her mindboggling performances in the recent national and the silver she won at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Jakarta have put her on track to join the select league of Indian women athletes that includes her illustrious coach.

In the meanwhile, Tintu gets back from the victory podium with a National Open gold. She gives this to Usha who puts this over her head and gives a warm hug. “Winning medals does not matter,” says Usha. “It is the timing and the way she paces her race that is important. She has forced me to revise her targets now. Our real target is the London Olympics.”

Tintu walks along with Usha and sits down on the empty tracks. Tintu's eyes are focused on the white lines. Everything has been one long dream. From the small school in her village where she began running, she has now moved to become the hope of the nation. Running at the Olympics was her dream, winning there has been Usha's. Both of them have achieved much but each one of them has been a step towards that ultimate goal.

The Payyoli Express is speeding again. And the next stop - London.

Keywords: P.T. UshaTintu Luka