'In India, a sportsperson has no credibility'
As he preps for the Winter Olympics in South Korea, India's only luger, Shiva Keshavan tells us how it could be his last
Shiva Keshavan is walking in a light snow drizzle in Altenberg, Germany, as he speaks to us over the phone. This is a day before he won the gold at the Asian Luge Championships in Altenberg and will soon head off for more races in Canada and the US. All this could be seen as prep for the Olympics in February. "Luge racing is fiercely competitive since it's the only sport in the world that is timed to the 1,000th of a second. To qualify, you have to be in and around 7 per cent of the best time. But it's pretty close! I once finished 22nd, and I was only 7/10th second behind the winner." Keshavan, who was discovered at 15 in Manali, where he was born and raised, by a group of international luge coaches, went on to qualify for the Olympics at 16. Since then, he has also remained India's only professional luger. He has won five Olympic medals and set multiple luge records.
Shiva Keshavan training in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. pic/Red Bull Content Pool
It's little wonder then that he has once again qualified for the Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang this February. A Luge is a one-person sled on which one sleds supine (face up) and feet-first. Steering is done by flexing the sled's runners with the calf of each leg or exerting opposite shoulder pressure to the seat. It's tough as well as dangerous. Keshavan, 36, who also runs a restaurant in a small town called Vashisht near Manali, started out by borrowing sleds, and then graduated to making his own in his garage. "It was all a matter of trial and error. I used to order parts and then put it together. In 2014, I met Duncan Kennedy, [a former Team USA member] who told me, you are doing well, but we used to do this 20 years ago," says The Lawrence School, Sanawar, alumnus. And so, with Kennedy as his coach, Keshavan decided to design a new sled. They got in touch with a technical university in the US, and replaced Keshavan's fiberglass handmade mould (on which he sits) with a computer generated carbon fibre one. "At least then, the left and right are same, as it's not manual," he laughs, "This is built exactly according to my specifications, and it reacts the way I want it to. But like any other sport, there is constant R&D and innovation [required]." The tracks and conditions also change every year, since ice is inconsistent. "The hardness changes, so do the curves and the gradient. So you have to keep adapting."
Keshavan also works on his body the year through. Unlike Formula 1 drivers, who have to be light since their cars are propelled by an engine, lugers have to be heavy, as they have gravity to deal with. "It's all about resistance training and core strength. I am around 90 kilos at six feet." But Keshavan, who spends most of the summer figuring out sponsorships, says that this winter could be the last leg of his professional career, and the unsustainable nature of the sport is the reason. "I do this as a passion. I live for this. But I have a family to think of. In India, an athlete has no credibility."
Though he may quit the sport, he has been working hard to put together the Olympian Association of India (made up of other Indian Olympians), to nurture talent, and says he will continue doing what he can. "For now, I am focusing on the Olympics. After that, I have a lot of thinking to do." We hope Keshavan gives us another winter.
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