FOR the generation growing up in India in the Eighties, there was nothing as exhilarating and mesmerising than watching Payyoli Tevaraparampil Usha take off the blocks like a gazelle. Such was the speed, grace and charisma of PT Usha, who notched up five medals in the 1986 Asian Games, including four gold medals.

Usha, born in Payyoli, Kozhikode district of Kerala, remained the ‘Queen of track and field’ for almost two decades. She was arguably India’s first sports icon, who was an inspiration to people across the nook and corner of India, cutting across gender, generation and professional boundaries.

Fondly called the ‘Payyoli Express’ for her awesome speed (much before encomiums like ‘Rawalpindi Express’ for Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar  and ‘Indian Express’ for India’s tennis duo stars of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi came into vogue), Usha became a trend-setter for women in India who took to excelling in sports. She is probably the first Indian sports icon who returned to track and field after taking a hiatus from the sport following her marriage in 1991.

The ‘Payyoli Express’ hit the limelight as a junior athlete in the National Inter-State Meet at Kollam, Kerala, in 1978. However, her international debut in the 1980 Moscow Olympics proved lacklustre. In the 1982 New Delhi Asiad, Usha bagged a silver medal in the 100m and the 200m, but at the Asian Track and Field Championship in Kuwait a year later, Usha bagged the gold in the 400m with a new Asian record. From 1983-89, Usha notched up 13 gold medals at ATF Meets (later rechristened as Asian Championship).

Heartbreak in LA

At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Usha finished first in the semi-finals of the 400m hurdles, but narrowly missed a medal in the finals, reminiscent of Milkha Singh’s 1960 close brush with the podium. There was a nail-biting photo finish for the third place. Usha lost the bronze by 1/100th of a second. She became the first Indian woman (and the fifth Indian) to reach the final of an Olympic event by winning her 400m hurdles semi-final.
Asia’s Sprint Queen

Usha’s domination at the 1986 Asian Games held at Seoul will remain etched in the history of Asian athletics. True to her nickname, ‘Golden Girl’, Usha won four gold medals and one silver medal in the track and field events. Interestingly, Usha created new Asian Games records in all the events in which she participated.  She won five gold medals at the Sixth Asian Track and Field Championship held at Jakarta in 1985.

When Usha hung up her athletics spikes, she had captured unimaginable heights, notched several records and firsts for Indian athletics. Usha became the first Indian woman to reach the final of an Olympic event. She is the youngest Indian sprinter, at 16, to compete in the Olympics at the 1980 Moscow Games and won the first medal of the 1982 Asian Games in track and field. Overall, she participated in three Olympic Games – 1980, 1984 and 1988. The ‘Payyoli Express’ was a member of India’s 4x 400m relay squad in the 1996 Olympic Games, but did not compete. She was part of India’s 4x100m relay, together with Rachita Mistry, EB Shyla, and Saraswati Saha, which won the gold medal in the 1998 Asian Championships and set the current national record of 44.43 seconds. At one point, returning after a four-year break,  Usha bagged a silver medal at the Hiroshima Asian Games 1994.

For her achievements, Usha has been conferred the Padma Shri and Arjuna Award. The legendary athlete is now actively involved in running the Usha School of Athletics (USHA) at Koyilandi, near Kozhikode.