WHAT IT MEANS TO BE USHA SCHOOL OF ATHLETICS

The lobby of Usha School of Athletics (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Almost seventeen years old now, Usha School of Athletics has come a long way. Yet challenges remain. A report, based on a visit to the school:

A Friday morning

Kinalur was some ways off from Kozhikode.

You turn towards Kinalur Industrial Estate from Balussery on the road leading to Wayanad. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Kinalur, next to small hills, was the Usha School of Athletics. It was set on land of varying elevation. At a lower level from the road leading to the school was a small circular ground with mud track. Just above it was a building under construction meant to house facilities, including the school’s gym. At near similar elevation as this building yet tad lower than the road, was the office and hostel complex. The school’s gym also currently resided there. The highest elevation, bordering one side of the road, was reserved for the emergent heart of the school’s infrastructure – a fenced, well laid out ground with 400 meter-synthetic track.  It was past 7 AM. The school’s trainees were already out on the track, training. They were dressed in blue colored shorts and T-shirt with USHA printed on the back.

Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics

P. T. Usha was in the middle of the ground. Stopwatch in hand, she gave instructions to start training runs. At the end of each run by her wards, she shouted the time each one took. Her husband V. Sreenivasan, treasurer and one of the directors of the school sat on a bench to one side noting down the figures Usha was saying aloud. He diligently wrote it down against a list of athletes’ names. “ Don’t miss anything. These figures matter to me,’’ Usha, who was chief coach and mentor, reminded. The students did their training runs, taking turns batch by batch. Those coming off the track or waiting to get on to it encouraged those running.

It depends on how you look at it. If you are the sort that wants city and urban commotion at hand, then this corner of Kinalur is arguably far off; too quiet. But if you are the sort seeking something in life, wishes to train for it and desires no distraction – then, this is it. In the more than three hours I was at Usha School of Athletics, nothing from outside interfered in its ecosystem, except freelance journalist’s presence. It was as secluded as an end of Kozhikode could get. At the same time it was self-contained facility. Around 9 AM, the students – having completed their morning session of training; had breakfast at the hostel mess and changed into the uniforms of their respective schools – left for studies.

Training on Payyoli beach (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

The beginning

P. T. Usha is India’s most famous woman athlete yet. She is best remembered for her fourth place finish in the final of the 400m hurdles competition at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. She missed getting the bronze medal by wafer thin margin. A whole nation had hoped, sighed and then applauded her. “ In 1985, I happened to be at the Crystal Palace National Sports Center in London. They had good training facilities there. That was when I began thinking of an athletics school,’’ Usha said. The thought stayed in her mind. In July 2000, the media reported that Usha had announced her retirement. It was the second time she was saying so; the first had been after the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing. But this time it appeared final. “ Athletics has been my life and it will continue to be so in the years to come in some form or the other,’’ The Hindu quoted her as saying at the meeting. Roughly two years before this press conference, in 1998, she had attended a civic reception in Koyilandy where people suggested that she train their children. She took it up. “ It was strenuous balancing that assignment with my regular work at Southern Railways,’’ Usha said. In conversations that followed with Sreenivasan and others, the contours of the school project started taking shape. The news report on her retirement decision mentions her hope that the proposed school would serve as launch pad for Indian athletes to get that Olympic medal, which she had come so close to getting but eventually lost.

Of help in furthering plans for the school was an opportunity to interact with Mohandas Pai, former director of Infosys and currently chairman of Manipal Global Education, at an event in Mangalore. In 2000, the school was registered as a charitable trust. In 2002, the school was inaugurated; it operated from make shift premises in Koyilandy, had a spruced up sports ground in town to train at and the beach at Payyoli to additionally run on. The local Rotary Club contributed to setting up a gym for the school. After screening 40 children, 12 were selected for the school’s training camp. Within a year, some of them were competing at the national level. In three years Tintu Luka – she was part of the first batch enrolled at Usha School – was a silver medalist at the Asian Junior Championships.

The synthetic track at Usha School of Athletics (Photo: Shyam G. Menon)

The new school

In 2006, the Kerala government allotted over 30 acres of land in Kinalur, to build proper facilities for Usha School. The land was provided on long term lease spanning three decades. NRI businessman P. N. C. Menon helped construct the school’s office and hostel complex. Besides Mohandas Pai, others from the Infosys family – Kumari Shibulal and Sudha Murthy – also helped. In April 2008, the school shifted to its current location. In due course, the synthetic track was added. Construction commenced on a new building for facilities including a proper location for the school’s gym. By next year, the school should also have a recovery pool. At the time of writing, only ten acres or one third of the allotted land had been developed. The rest was available for future development. The school can train students in track events ranging from 100m to 3000m steeplechase. Its hostel can totally accommodate 40 students. As of end-March 2019, it had 19 trainees including names like Jisna Mathew (she was part of the Indian athletics squad for 2016 Rio Olympics), Abitha Mary Manuel, Pratibha Varghese, Elga Thomas, Angel Sylvia, Sharika and Jessy Joseph. At the same time, in March 2019, news reports appeared that Tintu Luka (she holds the national record in 800m), after an illustrious career featuring many wins at the national and international level besides participation in two Olympics, may be planning to retire. For fans of athletics, that’s a measure of the distance traveled by Usha School and its students. Almost 17 years had gone by. By March 2019, the school’s training staff included two assistant coaches, two physiotherapists, a team doctor, a strength trainer, a group of masseurs and personnel experienced in Ayurveda.

Students having breakfast at the school canteen (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The school accepts girl students. They are recruited at age 11-14 years. The core quality looked for is speed. “ What defines athletic performance is speed. From that fundamental ability, we develop strength and endurance.  That is how athlete grows,’’ Usha said. Selection trials for admission to Usha School of Athletics are held every year in the first week of February. Admissions to the school are finalized by May. The trainees, in addition to training for their chosen discipline in athletics at the school, receive regular academic education at schools and colleges in the region. They also participate in cleaning and maintaining the community space they share. One of the biggest differences about Usha School is the seamless access to a range of athletic talent / experience under one roof.  Usha is chief coach and mentor. The opportunity to train under her is what draws students to the school. On her part, she tries to know each of her trainees well. “ Every Christmas I make it a point to visit the home of any one of my students to know her and her circumstances better,’’ Usha said.  Besides such access to Usha, the students – they range from inexperienced newcomer to somebody like Jisna who has been to the Olympics – live and train together at the school. This means, theoretically, a newcomer gets to be around elite athletes on a regular basis. There are no walls separating elite and upcoming. There is scope for mutual interaction. In as much as there is scope for interaction within the school, care is taken to keep distractions from the outside at bay. Mobile phones on campus are discouraged. Students talk to their parents once a week or as needed.

The building housing the school’s office and hostel (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As regards school fees, only a nominal fee is collected from parents. The rest of the expenses are borne by the school. However there is regular sieving of students in terms of athletic performance. There are goals corresponding to athlete’s potential assigned and if trainees fail to live up to those expectations, they have to move on. The athlete is groomed slowly and steadily. The school makes them ready to take the training load. They work on a cycle of 52 weeks of training, divided into eight distinct sessions. The training spans both volume and intensity. At the end of each session, there is an assessment. By the end of the sixth assessment, the student should have achieved the target she set for herself. The rate of elimination is high. The school works with the expectation that in four years’ time, it should see the athlete capable of participating at the international level. Besides this filtering, there are also instances of trainees quitting and going because their priorities in life changed. Indeed one of the big problems in Indian athletics – if grooming cutting edge competence is what you are after – is finding talent that is also dedicated to improving itself in the sport. That was main reason for the school having 19 trainees (at the time this blog visited) against carrying capacity of 40. Since 2002, an estimated 91 students have passed through Usha School. Besides the athletes of national and international caliber it produced, at least nine of its alumni are working as sports teachers and coaches. Approximately 23 are in government service, working with state and central institutions.

Regular training at the school (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

The challenges

Training in athletics is training to achieve a goal. The goal has no appetite for excuses. You have to do what the goal demands making as few compromises in training, diet, equipment and exposure to major events as possible. A good school must operate so. The needs of athletes – like gear and equipment – are quickly attended to at Usha School. An example cited was this – at the school you don’t wear out a shoe and then stay grounded for days while you wait for a new one to be procured. There is no intervening bureaucracy. A new pair is procured as fast as possible and the momentum in training is maintained. Most of the trainees joining Usha School hail from tough financial circumstances. A nominal fee is charged from the parents because what is offered totally free of cost may not be valued. When they perform well and win competitions, it is common for athletes to get monetary awards. A small share of this goes as contribution to the school’s funding. The rest is promptly deposited in each student’s bank account (every student has to compulsorily open a bank account in her name). The school used to incur an expense of Rs 96,000 per annum on each student in 2002. Now that has risen to Rs 2.75-2.9 lakh (one lakh = 100,000). It goes up to Rs 6-7 lakh depending on the potential of the student and her stage of evolution in chosen discipline. If it is someone competing at the national or international level, expenses incurred are commensurately higher.

The school’s gym (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A typical training cycle has three elements – talent identification, nurture and exposure to events. The first two are handled by Usha and her staff. The third is dependent on sports federations who manage the passage to major championships.  Nurture and exposure are also arguably, capital intensive. One is composed of such ingredients like cost of training (including cost of sports infrastructure), food, hostel facilities, apparel and gear etc. The other entails expenses like registration fee for events, travel and boarding etc. For any institution the fundamental challenge is financial sustenance. There must be sufficient income to meet expenses ranging from cost of building infrastructure to meeting the school’s need for working capital. Usha School gets some funds from the state. Private sponsors of the institutional type have been few. As mentioned, P. N. C. Menon and his company, Sobha Developers, pitched in to support in the early stage by constructing the school’s main building. More recently, the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board has offered assistance. But long term institutional support from the private sector, has been absent. In terms of support from the outside, what has been relatively consistent is the support of well-wishers who pitch in because they have faith in Usha and wish to see Indian athletics grow. Senior corporate executives like Mohandas Pai feature among them, Usha said. There has also been crowd funding. Last year, the school raised Rs 27 lakh through crowd funding. It is still going on.

Usha receiving the Malaysian team that visited the school (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

Well-wishers may be open to being approached every time a school they trust needs assistance. But ideally, the school should sustain by itself without having to bother supporters every now and then. “ Our biggest challenge is working capital,’’ Sreenivasan, who was previously an officer with the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and took voluntary retirement to help with the school project, said. The general practice at the school is to spend 85 per cent of whatever funds it receives and retain 15 per cent as deposit. It is now eating into the deposits, this blog was told. On her part, Usha channelizes her appearance fee for public functions and all other recognition she gets, back into the school. There are also other potential avenues of income opening up. For example, you can train those who can afford to spend and use the receipts to fund the school’s main work. Late March 2019, a development in this regard was the arrival of a team of students from Malaysia’s Putra University to train under Usha. It was a ten day-program.  There have been similar enquiries from Sri Lanka and the Middle East. Being an independent entity, Usha School is able to process such requests pretty fast. From enquiry to actual visit, it must have taken the Malaysian team two months.

Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics

Of school and sponsors

Athletics is a strange animal. You are picked up for training on the strength of promise. There is no guarantee that years of training will make you a fantastic athlete of international caliber. For all you know, the training and progressive exposure to competitions, may merely show you limits you can’t breach. Even if you cleared all that and broke into the higher echelons of competition, in athletics, you are in an individual versus individual situation with the promised battle on track sometimes over in seconds. There is none of the hype, glamor and extended air time of team sports. Yet nothing symbolizes personal and national glory as much as triumphing in athletics does.  Given this matrix, it is difficult finding long term sponsors for athletics.

What makes it particularly difficult for institutions like Usha School is that even though it has the required approvals for receiving funds domestically and from overseas, its position as an independent academy does not make it a natural destination for funds from government (which has its own training institutes) or CSR funds from corporates. One of the first corporates the school approached for funding wanted the school to sport its name and not Usha’s, in return for financial assistance. That’s a bit like saying: the money we give you is more important than your experience in athletics, fourth place at Olympics and all. Another company gifted the struggling school, a bus. It certainly helped move people around but it also incurred fuel and maintenance cost, which were taxing on a small institution desperate for working capital. The bus was eventually given away. There is mismatch between how corporates imagine athletics and athletics schools, and how the same are seen by senior athletes / mentors like Usha. Having come up through the ranks, the latter knows what training ecosystem works for athlete. Usha School for instance, is now an accepted venue for national camp. Corporates on the other hand, are usually motivated by bang for the buck; return on investment. Patience – critical to growing athlete slowly, steadily – may be in shortage, in such environment. In the past, sports agents have offered to handhold the school into the world of corporate funding and branding.  The problem there is, the agents not only seek a percentage of the funds raised but they also expect the school to support them in the interim. That is not possible when the effort is to secure funds because the school is short of working capital in the first place. Sport seeks understanding for just what it is without having to pose as things it is not. Unfortunately, that is elusive.

Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics

Sample a suggestion the school received: why not project Usha School as women’s development and women empowerment? Usha couldn’t digest the idea of athletics packaged as something else. “ This is an athletics school. When a woman becomes an athlete is that not automatically empowerment? These girls are confident and know how to take care of themselves,’’ she said pointing to her students.

So what qualities should a potential long term sponsor for the school have? The response received highlighted the following: such a sponsor must (a) not tamper with the school’s work culture (b) not alter the school’s public image founded around P. T. Usha and her contribution to athletics (c) be somebody that understands the gestation period for high level athletic performance and (d) be somebody that understands the nature of sports. “ This is not a game of instant results,’’ Usha said. The promoters wish the school to survive after them as a beacon in Indian athletics. Finally, there is a very peculiar issue for independent school to tackle in the ecosystem it functions in. Independent schools founded by experienced athletes like Usha are relative newcomers in an athletics ecosystem traditionally dominated by large state owned establishments. Irrespective of parentage they all work in the same field, wishing their wards to make it to the same events, through the same selection route. In practice, it is not always level playing field. Will the existing big institutions allow independent schools to grow and produce good results?

P. T. Usha with her collection of medals (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

Promise begins in person

The quest for an Olympic medal is among reasons why Usha School exists. In the years since Usha missed that bronze medal at Los Angeles by a whisker, a lot has changed in Indian athletics in terms of sports infrastructure, opportunities and overall funding. Given sports – like all sectors – requires investment, this overall view of economy is useful to illustrate the change: according to Wikipedia, India’s GDP (measured in terms of PPP) in 1984 was $ 583.3 billion. By 2017, this had grown to $ 9.4 trillion. Amid this, that fourth place in Los Angeles in 1984, is the closest the country got to, to a medal at the Olympics in track athletics. Asked if she has as yet come across anyone from her trainees who reminds of the commitment and drive she showed years ago, Usha said “ no.’’ As India changes, human generations are also becoming different from one another. “ If my teachers pointed out mistakes in how I was doing something, I would work diligently to correct it. Previously, it was 75 per cent athlete’s work and 25 per cent that of the coach. With the current generation it is reverse. It is 25 per cent athlete and 75 per cent coach. You have to be after them to do things. You have to remind them to do the corrections; you have to remind them to hydrate well, so on. They have many distractions and they always want others around. In contrast, I used to train alone. I competed against my own timing. I proceed with the school in the hope that someday I will find someone who is very focused,’’ Usha said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with P. T. Usha and V. Sreenivasan. Except for the photos taken by the author, the rest were provided by Usha School of Athletics and have been credited so.)

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