heels on fire: 05/06/06

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Heels on Fire Go Running with a Legend

Afternoon 4th May 2006
Imagine the scene. It's 1984 and you are laid on the floor of your family living room watching the Los Angeles Olympics on television. Carl Lewis, Daley Thompson and Sebastian Coe are setting the world alight with super human performances. Gazing at the screen the mind of one 11 year old was opened to an amazing international world of different shapes, sizes, colours and creeds. Above all other events and people, one event captured my heart and imagination. It was the women's 400 metre hurdles.
That fateful day, PT Usha, a twenty year old woman from a small village called Payoli in Northern Kerala (affectionately known as the Payoli Express) missed out on a bronze medal by one hundredth of a second (less than the blink of an eye). I clearly recall being sat with my father watching and sharing 56 glorious seconds with PT Usha and India. I consequently spent that summer and many subsequent summers idolising my new found sporting heroine.

All these years later, at the age of 32 I found myself nervously dialling PT Usha's telephone number from central London. A flash of genius had passed through a friend's mind that we should try to link the Heels on Fire run with an Indian athlete. PT Usha had sprung to mind, and out of the network of amazing people involved in this project, PT Usha's website, number and email address had found its way to me. The phone rang and PT Usha answered.
Less than two weeks later the five of us were decked out in our Reebok sponsored Heels on Fire tee-shirts, shorts, socks and shoes driving in silence to meet the Payolli express. We asked strangers where PT Usha lived. Everyone knew where and everyone went out of their way to help. I rang the door bell and in a flash a boyhood dream came true.
Usha welcomed us into her home with a glowing smile and warm eyes. I was in awe as she took me into her living room. Looking to my right at the stairway I spotted pictures of PT Usha with Carl Lewis, Mother Theresa, Rajiv and Indira Gandhi. The length of the wall on my left was a floor to ceiling gallery of medals of the living legend of India and Asia. At the far end of the room was a stunningly beautiful picture of Usha posing in a tracksuit, with 102 gold medals around her neck.
We all sat together and spent some time talking through the idea behind Heels on Fire and the network of people working behind the scenes and around the world. I spoke of the purpose behind the run, about my own background and about the rest of the team. Never have I felt more like a fake than when I described my own running history and my pathetically uncompetitive times. Nonetheless, we could not have been made to feel more welcome. All of us had stars in our eyes, even Aji, the driver bounced up and down from outside the gates to catch a glimpse.

The TV cameras were set up, the microphones attached and I entered into my first ever TV interview with PT Usha, Indian sprint representative at four Olympics (Moscow in 1980 – aged 16, Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in 1988 and Atlanta in 1996), winner of multiple gold medals and holder of many records in the Asian games. If that's not enough PT was awarded the Asian athlete of the year on no less than five occasions. Asia has never had a more successful field and track athlete.
An hour of interview rolled by in a flash. We were all amazed by Usha's story and how she made it to the world stage as a raw athlete with little scientific or focused training and no exposure whatsoever to the world stage. Imagine being sixteen years old and running overseas for the first time, on an synthetic track (for the first time) – at the Moscow Olympics. Imagine being a girl from a small rural village in a country that focuses on few sports other than cricket and hockey. In terms of running, career and life Usha gave us a tour d' horizon through her experiences (she has travelled to 87 countries) as an athlete and as an ambassador. I was truly humbled.

As we wound up the interview, Usha turned to me and said that we should now meet the girls from her School (the PT Usha School of Athletics). Through force of personality and a lot of hard work PT and her equally amazing husband Srinivasan have managed to set up a school for elite athletes from all over Kerala. Hundred of students compete for places. Usha searches for raw talent (no doubt similar to her own as a 12 year old), she speaks with the parents, identifies characteristics through lengthy training camps and ultimately nurtures the girls (at the moment it is all female – but major plans are afoot for expansion) into well-rounded and extremely competitive athletes.
So we drove together to the nearby district sports council stadium in Koilandi. We were received by a throng of young athletes, smartly dressed in their tracksuits, beaming and ready to run. Along with Usha we carried out a number of newspaper interviews before setting off on a loop of the dirt track inside the stadium. The extended line of runners looked impressive in their red and green Heels on Fire tee-shirts. We laughed and joked finding our stride. Despite the run earlier that morning I felt no tiredness whatsoever in my legs. Exiting the stadium onto the main street of Koilandi we passed a statue of Gandhi. Momentarily I wondered what he would make of the passing runners – I think he would approve.
As we ran we attracted more and more attention. Traffic stopped, heads popped out of windows, photojournalists huffed and puffed, horns honked and everyone joined in for two kilometres of carnival atmosphere. Avoiding the traffic we ran side by side in twos. I chatted with Usha just the same as I would with any other runner. We talked about training, food, hydration, running friends, Kerala, her son, cricket, Mother Theresa and the Heels on Fire's development objectives of reaching out to and facilitating developing interaction between vast networks of like-minded people. About how the run is a simple conduit to tell the stories of the people we meet along the road between Kazargod and Kanyakumari. Usha was extremely enthusiastic about what we were doing. She said that she thought that more young people should have the courage to do similar things.
It was a sad to say goodbye, but the girls had been running in the morning and the scrum of people around us blocking the road had become too much. The police were looking stressed. As we parted Usha wished us good luck for the future. She said she admired what we were doing and we exchanged a hug. I received a whiskey sized bottle of honey from Usha's small farm. She said that two teaspoons a day would keep me strong. It had helped Usha to her success over the years, and so the 2 litre bottle might help me to mine.

As we drove away my mind was racing, trying to comprehend the last few hours. I had met a childhood hero, a strong and extremely articulate woman who had truly defied the odds. A true role model for us all. Through endeavour, hard work and sheer determination, a girl from a small rural village had become a global track star and a sporting ambassador. She had mad her dream come true, just as I had mine. The 11 year old boy inside me smiled contentedly. The 32 year old grinned mercilessly. Heels on Fire had gained the endorsement and support of one of the biggest sporting personalities in India and Asia.

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