Five golds, one bronze in three days: Why PT Usha was an Asian superwoman
One athlete winning five gold medals and a bronze in a single event made for unusual reading for fans of Indian athletics. They were not used to one gold medal, let alone five.
But PT Usha was no regular athlete.
A year on from missing a historic medal in the 400m hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by a whisker, PT Usha established herself as the queen of Asian track-and-field at the 1985 Asian Championships.
The six-medal haul in a single event at the Senayan Madya Stadium in Jakarta, Indonesia is a feat that is yet to be matched by any Indian sprinter so far.
And PT Usha’s record was fuelled by a desire to beat who was then considered the fastest Asian, Lydia de Vega.
About pride and being the best in Asia
Almost every PT Usha story from the 1980s was incomplete without a mention of Filipino sprint star Lydia de Vega.
The first chapter in their historic rivalry had begun at the 1982 Asian Games, where Lydia had pipped Usha to the 100m gold, though the latter’s silver medals in the 100m and 200m were her breakthrough moments.
A year later, at the 1983 Asian Championships, Lydia de Vega was victorious against PT Usha again, this time in the 200m, though the Indian star hit back by winning the 400m gold.
So, come the 1985 Asian Championships, it was not just about winning gold for the Padma Shri awardee.
“It was about pride and being the best in Asia,” she had told The Indian Express.
After Usha’s performance at the 1984 Olympics, Lydia de Vega knew she had a battle on her hands and so, the mind games started even before the duo ran in their first event together – the 100m.
“Lydia was my main competitor in the 100m and her father, Francisco de Vega said that an athlete could take part in only three events at the meet. He wanted me to withdraw from the 100m race,” PT Usha told The Week magazine.
However, the Indian sprinter and her coach OM Nambiar were having none of it.
The then 21-year-old PT Usha was very confident in her timings for the 100m, and it showed as she ran the semi-final in a then-national record time of 11.39 seconds.
Her incredible form continued in the final, as PT Usha won the gold medal to beat her famed rival by almost half-a-second.
Lydia de Vega was relegated to third place as Thailand’s Ratjai Sripet won the silver. It was Lydia’s only medal at the event.
“It is a win that I cherish a lot even today.”
After Usha emerged the victor in what she perceived to be her toughest event, the Payyoli Express was unleashed. “In the rest of the races, my confidence was sky-high. I was sure I could win gold medals,” she told The Indian Express.
And the giant electronic scoreboard proved why it was not just a sign of arrogance from PT Usha.
The Indian star won golds in the 200m and 400m sprints by a margin of seven-tenths of a second. In her pet event then, the 400m hurdles, she took gold from compatriot MD Valsamma by over a second.
Within 35 minutes, PT Usha had landed two gold medals. She was in a zone.
“I knew how much of the race I had to finish in how much time. I knew every step.”
PT Usha then teamed up with fellow medallists, Shiny Wilson (800m gold and 400m silver), Vandana Rao (200m bronze) and Pushpa Nachappa to win the record fifth gold medal in the 4x400m relay, beating the Japanese team by over five seconds.
The most memorable medal
Despite blazing the tracks to collect gold medals in a flurry, PT Usha recollects the bronze medal in the 4x100m relay, the only non-yellow metal she won in Jakarta, in vivid detail.
It also gave her the satisfaction of beating Lydia de Vega for a second time.
“When I got the baton, we were sixth or seventh,” Usha said. “Lydia was by my side, on the next lane, to anchor the Philippines team. My baton exchange was fast, and I overtook one or two women after that. Lydia was late in her exchange and that gave India our first medal in the 4x100m relay.
“I still have a CD of the event and I play it back quite often,” admitted PT Usha.
The Indian track queen had pulled off the unthinkable for Indian athletics and in the process, had reserved her place in Asian athletics history.
PT Usha would further embellish that record with four golds and a silver at the 1986 Asian Games but her mind-boggling runs in 1985 provided the foundation to firmly stamp her authority in Asia for years to come.