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Going for Southern flavours

Food and sport mixed freely in the conversation with P.T. Usha. The former ace sprinter was game to eat a bit of Andhra food.

Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

ALL SPICED UP: P.T. Usha sampling varied fare.

"LET ME try some Andhra specialities when I am here. When I am out of Kerala I try the local food" says a smiling P.T. Usha as she settles down for dinner at Dakshin, ITC Kakatiya Sheraton Hotel and Towers . The former ace sprinter, dressed in salwar-kameez, has a look at the décor of the restaurant and scans through the exhaustive menu and settles for an assortment of dishes from the Southern States. Seafood not surprising was the first on the agenda - royyala iguru (a prawn dish from Andhra Pradesh), meen moilee (fish from Kerala) with the others being kozhi vartha kozhambu (chicken from Tamil Nadu), tomato pappu and kathrikai kara kozhambu (brinjal preparation from Tamil Nadu) to go with rice.

"I eat rice once a day. In the afternoon I had ulava charu (a typical Andhra speciality of horsegram)," said Usha. The sprinter cooks sometimes and she prefers to cook non-veg for her husband and son. "My husband likes my cooking. I cook when I have the time and naturally the taste is different when I cook. My husband also helps me with the cooking," says Usha. "My son does not like chillies and like any youngster is fond of pizza and noodles and does not mind eating them every day. In fact when I go to Calicut (now Kozhikode) which is 25 kilometres from Meladi where I live I have to get him his pizza, " she says. Her favourite dishes include meen molasia, sambhar and kootu-curry.

The conversation then meanders to sport - the school of athletics she has set up in Quilandy (Calicut district), which is 12 kilometres from Meladi. "The government announced land but we could not get it and we purchased about 33 acres," she says. Usha trains budding athletes free of cost. She scouts for talent in children in the age-group of 11 to 12 years. From the innumerable applications which pour in large numbers about 25 children are selected over a process of two days. She reassesses their talent over a two-week coaching camp where she trains them. The number is then zeroed down to 12. Residential facilities and food is provided to the athletes and they are educated in a school nearby. The applications, she informs were from other States like Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, but the final athletes are from Kerala. Usha is happy that already two athletes proved their mettle by inning the 400 metres medal at the National School Meet and 600 metres silver medal (this athlete broke the previous record).

Funds are difficult. It's not like cricket where money pours in but Usha has been able to get some financial assistance like a grant of Rs. 15 lakhs from the government and some amount from a corporate body. "People will help after a person wins the medal but not before," she rues. But she has the zeal and determination to see the project come through. "My husband and two-three others are committed to the Sports Academy."

Her eyes light up as she speaks of her ten and a half year old son Ujwal. "He runs well and we want him to become an athlete but don't know whether he would take it up. At the moment he is interested in painting and draws Ganeshas," says a proud mother.

Has she recovered from `missing the bronze medal at Los Angeles Olympics by a whisker'? "Even now I feel bad. In a recent foundation-stone laying function at Kannur University the Governor re-lived those moments and the lack of experience cost me the medal," she says with a tinge of regret.

In her heyday her diet comprised a lot of potatoes (particularly when she went abroad) as it gave the necessary carbohydrates, fruits and salads. She remembers taking pickle to Los Angeles to perk up the bland meals. "Once a foreign coach asked me what I was eating. I showed him the pickle bottle. He tasted a bit and ran around with tears streaming down his cheeks and headed straight for ice cream," she says with a mischievous smile. So committed was she to the track that she never went sight-seeing till the competitions were over. She fondly remembers her visit to Disneyland in 1984 after the Olympics.

Usha asks for lime and soda to have along with the meal. She thanks the restaurant in charge for the meal and the little brass lamp she was presented with before leaving.

RADHIKA RAJAMANI

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