Having set the tracks on fire, the sprint queen of India P.T. Usha is grooming and nurturing medal-winning talents, writes Sumit Bhattacharjee

Be it acting or sports, we rarely see someone take up a profession so passionately as to give back something to it. One of those rare professionals, the Payyoli Express, stills chugs along, and this time she has added the quality of compassion to her speed and endurance.

Indian sprint queen Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha, or P.T. Usha, was here recently on an invitation from Sri Prakash Synergy School, Peddapuram, for the school's annual day function and spoke to The Hindu Metro Plus on her future plans.

“My immediate goal is to get an Olympic gold medal for the country and I hope Tintu Luka will do it,” says the ace sprinter. P.T. Usha set up a full-fledged academy, Usha School of Athletics, at Kannur to train young Indian prospects, and Tintu is her ward. She is the only athlete to qualify and to represent the country in the 800 metres run in the 2012 Olympics to be held at London. This school is open to girls only and has a gym, swimming pool, running track and other facilities.

“Right now we have a mud track, but the Central Government has sanctioned a generous amount for a synthetic one,” says Usha. “My academy has facilities to host 40 students at a time, and it is linked up to an academic schedule. At present I have 17 students and they were selected from the 500 athletes who attended the interview.”

While the hunt is on, the sprinter says that she is yet to find another P.T. Usha who can match her physique, endurance, stride, speed and, most important, dedication.

After having lost the bronze medal by one-hundredth of a second in the 400 metres hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Usha decided that she would set up an academy and train young Indians.

“We did not have the basic facilities in our times and that is the reason why I intend to give my young athletes the best,” she says.

But the sprint queen feels that the present-day athletes lack resolve and determination, the qualities that kept her going for years.

The Payyoli Express did not start her career on a track. She ran on an uneven piece of land behind her house that was adjacent to a railway track.

She was spotted by her mentor O.M. Nambiar at the 1979 National School Games and she never looked back. She gave India five silver and four gold medals in the Asian Games alone over a career spanning a decade.

Her sprinting stride was compared to that of a deer in full run and was aptly captured in an advertisement, and even the world renowned hurdler Edwin Moses sang her praises.

“Yes, my strides were god gifted and I am yet to find another one in the same league,” says Usha.

Though Usha began as a sprinter, she graduated to running hurdles. “I always liked the sprints — be it the 100 metres or the 200. But being a natural athlete I participated in almost all track and field events such as long jump, high jump and shot put, in my school days. At a national meet, I saw a hurdler practising and was instantly drawn towards it, and every day after my practice stint, I would try a couple of hurdles. My coach saw me doing it, and he motivated me to try the hurdles. But before that he asked me to practise for the 400-metre run. And that's how I added the 400-metre hurdles to the 100, 200 and 400 metre sprints.” She adds, “Hurdles need a different form of preparation, both mental and physical. A lot of synchronisation is needed.”

The top athlete points out that if the prospects win one or two medals in the track and field events at the Olympics, the scenario for athletics would change drastically. “The 1983 Prudential Cup did it for cricket and Abhinav Bindra did it to the sport of shooting. Many call me up to find out if we offer courses on shooting,” she laughs.

She also feels that coaching and grooming should start at the age of 12 and follow a well-planned, long-term programme. “Well, I would have practised against speeding trains and receding waves to improve my speed and endurance, but for the present generation, facilities are in place, what is lacking is dedication and long-term planning.”