Nicknamed 'Payyoli Express' for her speed on the track, P.T.Usha created her first national record (in the 100 m) in 1977, when she was just 13 years old. An astrologer had predicted greatness for this girl from an average middle-class family, born in the tiny Kerala village of Payyoli.
Her debut in the 1980 Moscow Olympics was colourless. In the 1982 New Delhi Asiad, she could only win silver medals in the 100 m and the 200 m.
But at the Asian Track and Field Championship in Kuwait a year later, Usha took gold in the 400 m with a new Asian record. Between 1983-89, Usha garnered 13 golds at ATF meets. She finished first in the semi-finals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but faltered in the finals. In almost a repeat of Milkha Singh's 1960 feat, there was a nail-biting photo-finish for the third place. Usha lost the bronze by 1/100th of a second.
In the 1986 Seoul Asiad, just 22 years old, Usha crowned herself Asia's sprint queen by winning the 200 m, the 400 m, the 400 m hurdles and the 4x 400 m relay. The next five years saw her go from strength to strength on the Asian scene.
By 1991, when she married and faded from the athletics scene, P.T.Usha had become an icon for Indian women athletes and a living legend in Kerala, where streets and newborn babies were regularly named after her. A spark of the old fire was glimpsed in 1998, when 34 years old and a mother, she won bronze in the 200 m and the 400 m at the Asian Track and Field Championships in Fukuoka, Japan.