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Some food, some fun, some sprint

SPEAKING TO P.T. Usha at New Delhi's Crowne Plaza Surya's Le Café restaurant is a lesson in humility. No cultivated drawls in her speech, no slangs either. She is shy, reticent, soft-spoken and well meaning. No throwing one's weight around or using the laurels of the past as a licence to throw tantrums at a public place. No fancy electronic gadgets in her handbag, no precious watch on her wrist. Yet she is punctual to the second - and who is to know the value of a second better than Usha, the Payyoli Express who missed a medal at the Los Angeles Olympics by a hundredth of a second. With her, time stands still, 19 years later the lady still has tears in her eyes when she speaks of the times when her sheer inexperience cost her the medal.

"I met Edwin Moses the other day at Hero Indian Sports Academy show and lived my race all over again in my mind. I felt bad yet again. No matter what I do, that feeling does not go. Before the Olympics I never thought I could win. After I won the race in Pre-Olympics I got confident. Then I did well in the heats and won the semi-final. I lost the finals only due to my inexperience. Forget about breasting the tape even if I had fallen at the end I would have won! It was then that I realised that an Olympic medal is not impossible," she recalls as she helps herself to some lentil soup. And it is that medal she is attempting to bring to India through one of the 12 girls she is training at the Usha School of Athletics in Kerala.

"I missed the medal but I want the country to have it. I want to do it through the girls who are undergoing training at my school. I achieved everything except an Olympic medal. I am looking for that fulfilment." Incidentally, Usha trains the pupils for free, looking after their food, accommodation, studies and other expenses. And no, she is not sitting on her laurels. Like always, the Payyoli Express is chugging along nicely.

"I start my day around 5-30. I train with my pupils for an hour. Then, I take a train to Palakkad. It takes me four hours to reach my office. I spend another four hours coming back in the afternoon. Then I go back to my school for training the girls."

Starting the main course, Usha surprises the hosts by asking for "fresh rice, some subzi and roti". The guys are obviously not prepared for a celebrity to ask for the common man's food. On some prompting she settles nicely for non-vegetarian fare. "Earlier I used to have Continental food but now I prefer Indian food. I was a vegetarian as a child but as I grew in athletics, somewhere down the line I turned a non-vegetarian," she reveals as she orders Murgh Tikka and Chicken Curry besides rice. "Please add some papad," she requests, her South Indian moorings very much in place.

"I have four sisters and a brother. In the early years of life, I used to be ill often. I had typhoid too. I was naughty but I used to be fast at everything. I would walk fast, run fast, work fast, and even talk fast. There was no middle path. When I was in fourth standard, the physical instructor in my school asked to run with a girl in seventh standard. She was a local champion. I beat her. Then fortuitously Kerala Government opened a sports division. My uncle sent me there. My mother wanted me to be a teacher. My father wanted me to be a doctor. I liked science in school, so I opted for science after matriculation. But as I won in athletics, my studies suffered. Without telling my parents I changed my subjects. On knowing they complained to my Principal!"

The second period of opposition came a little later, she recalls as she helps herself to some rice and curry, having already declined fresh juice. To wash it down, she settles for some fresh lime soda. "After 1984, they started the cry of marriage. Every year, I asked them to give me a year. I kept dilly-dallying for seven years before marrying Sreenivasan in 1991. But my hubby supported me, guided me. Now I tell him that if I had met him earlier I could have probably won the Olympic medal!" As she gets up to have an ice-cream, Usha reveals that she can cook too and loves "to prepare something special" for her husband. "Once in a while he helps me prepare food in the evening."

Complimenting the staff for some delicious fare, she picks on chicken masala as her favourite. Next moment, her mind goes to her family. Her son had asked her to buy something from Delhi. It is close to 10 at night. That little gift will have to wait another day. This time, the Golden Girl is running behind time.


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