first_imgFast steps: P.T Usha (in tracksuit) hopes her academy will produce an Indian Olympic medallistOn a beach lined with palm trees, Samira Hamsa revisited her childhood. When Hamsa, on a visit to her parents’ village from her home in Kozhikode, walked down to the Payyoli seafront one day, she saw,Fast steps: P.T Usha (in tracksuit) hopes her academy will produce an Indian Olympic medallistOn a beach lined with palm trees, Samira Hamsa revisited her childhood. When Hamsa, on a visit to her parents’ village from her home in Kozhikode, walked down to the Payyoli seafront one day, she saw a lithe figure run out of the twilight.It was the stride she recognised first-a rhythmic, smooth, mahogany clock of a run. Twenty years ago, Hamsa had spent many dawns sitting on the same beach, watching her friend running.Eventually her friend sprinted out of the village, chasing her destiny on bigger stages and grander arenas; but when Hamsa saw P.T. Usha loping up the beach at Payyoli two decades later, it was like neither of them had ever left.Usha has finally returned, not just to the village she made famous, but to Indian athletics itself. She is the founder and driving force behind an athletics school-the Usha School of Athletics (USHA) – that will identify its first batch of 10 permanent students and open its doors in June in a 3,000-sq-ft rented building in her home town Koyilandi.There will be fanfare then, but today things are quiet and as part of the school’s first coaching camp, Usha leads 25 girls between 10 and 13 years of age in training all over the countryside around Koyilandi. They go on to the beach, into a rickety municipal stadium, down the road, up a hill.The girls tread in the footsteps of one of India’s greatest-ever athletes-and it is the champion herself who has shown them the way. “It is my way to settle scores with my destiny,” says Usha. “I missed an Olympic medal by one-hundredth of a second. And I know it was my last opportunity too. But who can block me from helping somebody win an Olympic gold ?”Usha is 38 today and, ironically, the mother of a cricket-crazy 10-year-old boy called Ujjval. Her best running years are a decade and a half in the past but when the news arrived that Payyoli’s one shining light wanted to pass on the torch, the community threw open its arms.The school is an enterprise that could cost Rs 10 crore in four phases spread over six years and the athlete has been knocking on whichever door she could find for the past two years.Usha’s fund-raising visits to Central ministers and bureaucrats in Delhi yielded nothing. It must have been a pride-swallowing experience for a former champion to put out her hand and ask strangers to fund her dream.advertisementBut every time a door did open, Usha discovered that she herself was a stranger to very few. She has had to shrug off her desire for the quiet life and make presentations about her project; after one such meeting in Mumbai, film star Sunil Dutt wrote out a personal cheque for Rs 50,000.The previous Kerala state government gave her a donation of Rs 15 lakh. Usha has identified a final destination for her school: a 25-acre plot of land in Ulliery, 7 km away from Koyilandi. When completed in the next five years, Usha intends it to have a stadium with an eight-lane 400m track, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a school, an office and hostel accommodation.A 19-member trust headed by Usha runs the school today in its fledgling state. “What gives us hope is the enormous support coming from everywhere,” says the former champion.Corporate majors have been slow in responding to Usha but the athlete’s legend has created its own peculiar momentum: T.V. Mohandas Pai, director of Infosys and its CFO, made a large personal donation which he will not quantify, and has also pledged all support for the academic activities of USHA through the Manipal Academy of Higher Education.”Usha made us proud,” says Pai. “If I don’t do my bit to help a person who made India proud, I will be failing in my duty.” Five USHA students will be sponsored by the Akshaya Trust, thanks to the push from one of its trustees, Kumari Shibulal, wife of Infosys co-founder and Director S.D. Shibulal. The local Rotary district has pledged to import a multi-gym worth Rs 12 lakh.The Indian Institute of Management-Kozhikode (IIM-K) sends student teams to USHA to supplement managerial skills needed to raise the school. “We will prepare project reports and provide networking for national and international funding,” says IIM-K Director Amarlal H. Kalro.Mysore’s Central Food Technologies Research Institute (CFTRI) sends experts to chalk out a food and dietary schedule for the students. When Dr V. Prakash, director, CFTRI, told Usha that she may have won her Olympic medal in Los Angeles 1984 had her nutrition been monitored from her school days, the athlete was moved to tears. “Even now, the poorest of poor come to athletics,” she says. “All the students selected for the first camp have good grades in everything-except in body weight.”It is from the poor that the school derives its greatest support. Usha had an option to set up the school in Bangalore with considerable help from Infosys but says, “How can I forget my own place and people?” CM. Vijayan, a small paan shopkeeper in Koyilandi town, closes his shop early during the coaching camp and reports for duty as school night-watchman.advertisementHe does not want to be paid. K. Babu, a provision-store owner, gave 50 kilos of rice free for the camp. Another shopkeeper sent eggs and one day the local toddy-tapping workers union sponsored the chicken for the campers’ supper. When the school’s well dried up, townspeople ferried 4,000 litres of water in autorickshaws to fill its tank.After applications were invited in February for the first coaching camp, 400 were scrutinised by a panel comprising Usha, her former coach from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) J.S. Bhatia, Dr Lakshmi Shaw, a Bangalore-based sai coach, and O.M. Nambiar, the man who discovered the Payyoli Express.The 10 girls who will be selected as permanent students will be trained and put into age-group competition at the national level. While the sentiments driving the school and its trainees may be homespun and old-fashioned, the training Usha promises will be modern.V. Gauthaman, a psychology professor from Coimbatore’s Bharatiyar University, visited the camp to conduct psycho-physiological tests. “These children are lucky,” Usha says wistfully. “I didn’t do a psychological test until I reached the final stages of my career.”Gauthaman has just given a McClelland test to the girls to assess their motivational levels. The girls were asked to look at a picture of Usha garlanded with four gold medals she won at the 1986 Seoul Asiad on the wall and describe their feelings.Nimmy George, 12, wrote: “Usha chechi (elder sister) has a smile on her face-like all her hard work and sacrifices have not been futile.” George clearly dreams big-her second sentence reading, “I would like to be like her.”last_img

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