All downhill from here can mean wickedly different things in life — like in luge.
When Shiva Keshavan slid down the Nagano track in the Asian Championship finals on Friday, the gold medal at the bottom of that slope made all the difference in looking back at the misadventure of earlier this week as comic, and not tragic. Armed with a searing, speedy sled, and recording the fastest times he’s clocked this last year, it was right after the finishing line in training when he crashed.
Bobsledders and their clunky sliders equipped with brakes, often leave behind giant grooves at the base of the slope. The 35-year-old Indian’s sled scraped over one of these skid marks and threw him in the air. He wound up awkwardly on his ankle and as if that wasn’t enough, he caught a frostbite trying to scramble back in.
“It was hilarious. But I’ve learnt to laugh at things on the track that don’t go my way rather than beat myself up over it. Make things light rather than dwell,” he says after winning his third Asian championship, albeit a gold after a longish gap.
Shiva Keshavan will enter his 20th year of competing in luge internationally this season. Five Winter Olympics have slid past, and there is anticipation about the sixth when PyeongChang hosts the Games in 2018. He’s picked 3 gold, 5 silver, 2 bronze and can brag about having beaten a third successive generation of Japanese lugers with his latest triumph.
But it was hardly a dream year. “It started on a mad note, pulling out of the most important race – the World championships at the beginning of the year because there was no money,” he recalls.
Keshavan had been tweaking his sled, developed with the help of Duncan Kennedy and his contacts at a New York University, but missing most of the last season meant it could be blazed only when Nagano came along.
“It was a crazy start, I was setting the pace for the field, I had a new sled and testing was going good. But in the very next run, I lost control and had to skip couple of days of official training,” he recalls. It left him a tad fuzzy, but physios he’s come to know from the old venue and his coach patched him up before the final.
“I was struggling to get back into shape, but had a good talk with the coach to get into the zone so I could go 100 percent and not worry about consequences,” he says. It worked out far better than he thought as he reclaimed the crown he’d lost to challengers last few seasons.
Two solid runs
It was two solid runs clocked at 1:39.962 minutes, ahead of 1:44.874 by Japan’s Tanaka Sohei. It helped that he knows Nagano’s ins and outs like the back of his steering hand.
Nagano’s always been pretty special ever since a teenaged Keshavan raced here in 1997-8. “Unfortunately there’s no World Cup or World Championhip here. But it’s the closest I can call a home track for me. I know I can give a good result, no matter what the level of competition,” he says.
It isn’t a particularly dangerous course, but a very technical track with three uphill sections. “It’s easy to manoeuvre it, but not easy to get fast. Any mistake drains a lot of time and there are 2-3 corners that come at you very fast,” he adds.
From being a young upstart in Japan – “just a kid having fun sliding down ice” – to overcoming technical challenges has been a long journey. “I remember how relaxed I used to be. But now there’s lot more at stake and that plays mindgames,” he says.
The bruises and the falls are less kinder now, and he’s watches his sport change a lot. “It’s one more toll on the body. So I need to prepare carefully with warm-ups. Rely on reaction time by anticipating. Where body is not young, the mind is seasoned,” he says.
Competition is heating up too – even at the Asian level. “The youngsters have a lot of energy, and nothing to lose. The average age has drastically come down, gap in talent is also reducing,” he says.
But Shiva Keshavan has something to prove. “I fight a lot of apathy back home, and convincing people to support a luge athlete is still tough,” he says, though he’s worked out his supporting funds for the 2017 season – an important one to qualify for the 2018 Games in Korea, starting with the Worlds in Jan and the Korean Word Cup later on, a test event for the Olympics track.
Keshavan is now a father to daughter Arianna, and says it’s made him all the more determined to do well when he’s away from home. “Responsibility brings with it toughness, now that I’m a role model to someone in the family. Hopefully I score victories that I can dedicate to her,” he adds. “Luge is the only think I know how to do. I better do it well.”