“This is the last one,” luger Shiva Keshavan informs, without a hint of trepidation in his voice. No traces of bitterness either, even as he adds, “I would like to continue but it is not feasible now.”
In 25 days, Keshavan will be in PyeongChang for his sixth and final Olympics, the most for Winter Games from India, and next only to Leander Paes (7) if Summers are also taken into account. In short, he has been at it long enough to know that being indignant won’t win him any medals, even though he has every right to do so.
His approval for government funding — “a very new feeling for me” — came in December, after Keshavan turned to Twitter. “Apparently my file is still waiting on TOPS approval before it can come before Mission Olympic Cell. 6 probable Winter Olympians waiting on funds, some have had to skip events and I may have to as well. 2 months before Olympics (sic),” Keshavan posted from Winterberg.
“It gets tiring on the road. Making last-second plans, getting a car, booking a hotel, holding my breath because I might miss crucial events,” says Keshavan. “That day, I had no money to book tickets to World Cup events.”
Stranded alone in a cold, sleepy German town, 6,000km from home, with nothing in the pocket but maxed-out credit cards, Keshavan faced the question that has dogged mankind for generations: “Why do I do what I do?”
For two decades, Keshavan has hurtled himself down an icy concrete chute, going 130kmph without brakes and pulling more Gs through the corners than an astronaut during a rocket launch. And that’s the easy part. Making his way back to the starting line each time has been an Olympic challenge.
The year was 1997, and VHS tapes of Cool Runnings — a heavily-fictionalised account of the Jamaican bobsled team’s journey to Calgary Games — were still doing the rounds, four years after the film’s release. The International Luge Federation took notice, and pushed to include more far-flung, warm-weather countries in the Winter Games. A team, led by Austrian world champion Gunther Lemmerer, set up a scouting camp in Panchkula and discovered a talented young skier from Manali who had little trouble rolling down the roads on a sled with wheels. He was taken to Austria and a year later, Shiva Keshavan, 16, became the youngest Olympian in luge at the Nagano Winter Games.
Army officer Tilak Himalyan, one of the handful selected for the camp in Austria, remembers his time spent with Keshavan.
“It sounds cliched now, but even all those years ago, I saw something different in Shiva. There were others who made it to the camp. But going down the street on wheels is one thing. They were shaking when they saw the intimidating ice track and many didn’t turn up the next day. Luge requires a lot of heart. Shiva was having fun. Mujhe pata tha ye nahi hatne waala,” says Himalyan, a national-level skier who had to put his dreams on ice indefinitely due to his advancing years and the call of duty.
“I was 40 and had no real future in sport. Then Kargil happened and I had to stop competing. If I had got the opportunity when I was 18-19, who knows,” adds Himalyan, who is now posted in Leh with the mountain rescue team. “We practised a lot together and Shiva was always looking to improve himself. Utne saalo se hamari baat nahi ho paayi hai, but when I read that he is still competing and preparing for another Olympics, it doesn’t surprise me.”
Back in 1998, Nagano for his first, Keshavan was a kid in a candy store.
“I had seen Olympics on TV, but I had never anticipated the magnitude of the event,” recalls Keshavan. “Amused athletes from different nations were coming in to check this lone luger from India. But I remember being strangely relaxed, even in front of the packed stadium.”
Let alone the stadium, he almost couldn’t make it into the Games Village.
“The mayor of Nagano told me I couldn’t be allowed in the Village because my country hadn’t sent the paperwork,” Keshavan laughs. He eventually competed with an oversized jacket somebody had given him and a hand-me-down sled. “I guess I was so young that I didn’t get affected by anything. Performance-wise, it remains one of my best races.”
But paucity of funds ensured that he couldn’t build on a credible debut, or own a competitive sled which costs upwards of Rs 8 lakh.
“For many years, I would borrow or rent a sled for the race or training. I would train on my own, because I didn’t have a coach. I would save up on car rentals and flights, asking for lifts from one place to another. Other teams would fly, and send their equipment on a bus. I would hitch a ride on the bus to reach the venue,” says Keshavan. “I’ve had to sleep in parked cars, to not go to a hotel. When you’re in that position, you do what you can.”
Details of the commute to his next Olympics are equally anxiety-inducing. After arriving late in Montreal owing to a flight delay, Keshavan missed the bus to Salt Lake City, the venue for the 2002 Games. He hitchhiked his way to the US border but couldn’t muster up $10 for the border fee, and a policeman had to pitch in.
He arrived in Vancouver for 2010 Games with his solitary sled, and a bone in his back, broken. Adding insult were the mismatched, lousy uniforms sent for the Indian contingent. A local sporting goods manufacturer donated uniforms while five Supreme Court lawyers pooled Rs 4.5 lakh to help him buy a new sled.
Countless such tales from the road meant India’s greatest winter athlete also became the poster boy for crowd-funding in the country. In Sochi, forced to compete under the Olympic flag, Keshavan rode downhill with names of 50,000 donors etched on his suit. “The sponsors and the people who’ve taken me places are always on my mind. It’s very humbling, knowing how I am a small piece of a very big picture.”
Keshavan however acknowledges that a sportsperson can’t put up a challenge in the upper echelons on the back of fundraising alone.
“Hiring a foreign coach is $4-5,000 a month. Ideally, you’d need a technician and a physiotherapist too. There’s the sled. Then you pay for the flights and hotels for everyone. With a proper team travelling around the world, you can spend anywhere between Rs1-2 cr per annum. To a layman it might sound a lot but it’s the standard cost for all sports and government should know it very well.”
Physiotherapists and technicians are luxuries reserved for athletes from Germany, Austria, Italy, USA or any other nation which takes the sport seriously. Keshavan has had to be a human Swiss army knife, taking stock and improving himself during the off-season. Summers are spent zipping down the winding highways in the Himalayan foothills on a wheeled sled, swerving through traffic and cattle with the chutzpah of an SUV driver in Delhi. An extensive bodyweight routine takes care of bulking up (90kg is sufficiently heavy) and maintaining explosive strength. Then there are the sessions spent modifying and calibrating his ride in the garage, instead of a multi-million dollar Formula One wind tunnel.
Putting together a customised sled for an elite luger is, well, rocket science. Teams collaborate with F1 teams, car manufacturers or other tech giants to track their ‘drag coefficient sonification’, optimise material combination and rider position. Such classified, aerodynamic masterpieces can help a rider shave off ‘100thofasec’, the difference between Keshavan and the riders above (and thus, his Twitter handle).
Keshavan admits that he has never been in a wind tunnel, and hasn’t been able to excite the Indian companies and manufacturers for a joint project. Despite all that, he was feeling supremely confident in the run-up to Sochi.
“I was feeling really good about the sled. I did a lot of experimentation and I thought all the changes would get me my fastest time.”
Instead, he crashed and recovered (a stunning moment which made the highlight reels) during a practice session, and finished 37th, his lowest position ever.
“I got my setup completely wrong. That’s where I realised if I had to do well, I need somebody to help me out with the equipment.”
Olympian Duncan Kennedy, who took a cursory glance at Keshavan’s sled and remarked, “this is stuff we were doing 20 years ago”, decided to team up with the Indian.
“After leaving my position as technical director of US Luge, Shiva and I talked a few times and decided to team up,” Kennedy told The Indian Express. “In Sochi, he had some issues with body stability and position, which looked to me like he had developed these habits from compensating for a sled that wasn’t fun to drive. The first order of business was to build him a sled that would restore his confidence.”
Kennedy (like Keshavan’s first coach Yann Fricheteu) had to split during a particularly severe financial crunch, but has rejoined Keshavan for his last hurrah.
“Duncan has been with me for the last two weeks. It’s an interesting arrangement we have,” said Keshavan. “He has stood by me through thick and thin. But taking care of a team is difficult when you don’t get the promised funding and have to make last-minute plans.”
It didn’t take long for Keshavan to realise that cold shoulders are an occupational hazard for a winter athlete in India.
“There have been instances when I had to explain what I do, who I am to the administrators. To them, Winter Olympics weren’t The Olympics. When you see how even Olympic sports have been obscure in India, of course Winter Olympics is in an even worse position.”
Bring up the narrative of India being a tropical country and thus not conducive to winter training and Keshavan shuts it down hard.
“There’s no other country in the world which has the natural resources for winter sports like India. There’s 3,000km of Himalayan mountains. Experts from all over the world dream of coming to India to practise. Why are we not working on infrastructure so that our kids can take on the world? Look how removed Himachal, Kashmir, Uttarakhand and North East are from your Delhis and Bombays. Why can’t we use winter sports, a multi-million dollar industry, as a means of development?”
But while the awareness about his cause still eludes the corridors of power, Keshavan is willing to find refuge in the silver linings.
“When I was stranded penniless in Germany, all it took was a call to the sports minister and he assured we are all behind you,” says Keshavan. “With (Rajyavardhan Singh) Rathore heading the ministry, at least the athletes can go and say what they want. He has seen it all and has had his own struggles. I would like to play a similar role from the outside.”
It’s no secret that Keshavan harbours administrative ambitions, and has quite a resume to boast. Six Olympics, nine Asian Championship medals (four gold), president of the Olympians’ Association of India. More impressive is the practical acumen. Popular among peers for his infectious energy and street-smart skills, the Indian luger-cum-backpacker is sought out by many in need.
“After all these years, there is a lot of respect in the international community,” says Keshavan. “Younger athletes from other countries come to me for advice. Especially those who are struggling, or don’t have resources. I can identify with them.”
Keshavan, who by his own admission is worried about the post-retirement transition — “I am 36, and have never had a professional career. It is going to be tough” — is willing to step in for the athletes back home.
“You need somebody to be between the government and athlete. Somebody who has seen the sport and lived the life,” says Keshavan. “I do not want the next generation of athletes to worry about getting warm food on their plate or figuring out a place to sleep next night. They should have the best equipment and concentrate on the job at hand. That can only happen when they don’t feel alone.”
During his journey, Keshavan has assembled a small team of his own. A team manager in wife Namita and a mascot in two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Omna.
“When I met Namita, I was out of the sport because I had no money. She quit her job and started looking for sponsors for me, organising crowd-funding. It is motivating, that you can feel good about what you’re doing, that your family can come over and be with you and watch the races. They’ve been with me for a week now, but the five months before were tough. I was alone, so far away from home but even for them, especially for the little one.”
“The little one”, with a fascination for luge paraphernalia.
“She sees helmets, visors, other equipment lying around and she picks it up and brings them to me. She recognises what I do. I suspect she has started a little early,” Keshavan guffaws.
For now, the spotlight is solely on Keshavan Sr. Though the 45th ranking in World Cup standings is less than stellar, thanks to a few missed events, Keshavan is feeling hopeful and enjoying the flow.
“It has been a memorable journey. I did it and loved every moment of it. And everything has come full circle, from Nagano to PyeongChang. Not only am I back in Asia, but I am feeling relaxed, like I was for the first run. I can allow myself to be a little carefree.”
Almost like he has nothing to luge.