“The difference between the impossible and possible lies in a man’s determination”
This quote perfectly sums up Shiva Keshavan's journey, for those of you who have not heard his name, he is a Luge Champion (considered to be the fastest sport on ice) and the only Indian to have represented the country six times at the Winter Olympics.
In a country that practises Cricket as a religion, most sports remain in shadows, fighting for attention. They sometimes lack adulation from cheering crowds, royal welcomes at the airport after a championship win, or front page coverage in leading newspapers. Many of them do not get the required funding, thereby limiting atheletes from reaching their full potential.
As sportsman you need to have a resolve of steel and passion that goes beyond everything else, and that is the only way to reach where Shiva Keshavan stands today. The 2018 Winter Olympics, will be held in the city of Pyeongchang, South Korea, and this would be Shiva's sixth attempt at winning a medal for India – a testament to his extraordinary legacy.
The beginning – a talent discovered
Shiva grew up in the Himalayas, he was exposed to snow and ice sports at an early age. “It was, in fact, a part of my life in the growing up years. I took up skiing at a very young age like all the young people do in the mountains, and went on to become the Junior National Skiing Champion,” he tells us on a phone call from Germany, where he is currently preparing for the Winter Olympics. He would be heading off to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in a few days for his sixth Winter Olympics.
As a kid, he was attracted to Luge due to its unique the combination of speed and adventure. At the start of his journey, he used a street sled, which was modified with rollers for on-road use as India did not have a Luge Track. The one similarity it had with Luge, though, was it did not have brakes – something that can be a problematic when you are moving along regular vehicular traffic. At age 15, this talented skier from Manali tore down the road with a modified sled on wheels, racing past overloaded trucks and potholed roads.
Keshavan studied at The Lawrence School - Sanawar, when the International Luge Federation was trying to expand their reach in countries that were not involved in this sport, one of their project camps was launched in India at Panchkula, under Australian World Champion Günther Lemmerer. Keshavan was selected by his school and sent to the talent hunt camp. “I performed as per the expectations of the coaches and the next thing I knew was that I was selected to be sent to Austria for my first international training,” recalls the Olympian.
At 16, Shiva became the youngest Olympian in Luge at the Nagano Winter Games. India's name does not come up often at the winter games. With its reputation of a tropical climate, most people tend to forget the wonderful northern parts of India that are amazingly suited for winter sports. “Nobody expected to see somebody from India,” recalls Keshavan, who became the lone luger from India competing in an oversized jacket and a hand-me-down sled. At that age, he was too young to know the impact he could have had if he had the right mentor and resources.
Not for the faint of hearts
Like all sports, Luge too tests an athlete's endurance. In this sport, time and speed are proportional. It is an extreme form of sledding that is designed to test your concentration and balance. It truly demonstrates what the human body and mind can accomplish. One doesn’t have a lot of time to think during the actual play. So you have to imagine the Luge track visualizing your way around it. Some things that can’t be figured out on the track can be figured off it. It is like a meditation of a different kind.
It’s not been all wins. There have been some bone-chilling crashes that show that this sport is not for the faint hearted. During a race that would have earned him a qualifying point for the Sochi Olympics, Keshavan got his sled set up wrong and crashed out. Being in the crash was like “being in a washing machine”. Keshavan was flung around, hit the roof and spun out of control. It made him realize that he was in need of professional help to move forward.
Hopes, prayers and support for an Olympic dream
Each time Keshavan faced a difficult situation, help and hope appeared out of nowhere.
For the 2010 Vancouver games, five Supreme Court lawyers pooled in Rs 4.5 lakhs to buy him a new sled. In 2002, he had to hitch-hike his way to the game venue in the U.S. and could not muster up $10 for the border fee, which a policeman eventually pitched in. In Sochi, Keshavan wore a suit that had his 50,000 donors name etched on it. All the support and encouragement didn’t go in vain. Keshavan won the first ever international gold medal in any winter sport for India in 2011. Defending his last year’s win, he won the gold in Asian Luge Championships in December 2017, making it his fourth gold medal for India.
For his record sixth Olympics participation at the Alpensia Sliding Centre at Pyeongchang in South Korea this year, Hero FinCorp and Hero Electronix have stepped in to be partners in Keshavan’s journey. Having good partners ensures that he stays focussed on the game and gets adequate resources and mentoring. Team Hero and millions of Indians are keeping their fingers crossed.
The challenge for Luge in India
According to Keshavan, the most challenging part of Luge is not the actual sport but its lack of awareness in India.
“Indians are not very aware of the Winter Olympics in general. We have had to prove that the Winter Olympics is also real Olympics run by the International Olympics Committee. The lack of awareness has been the biggest challenge. As far as winter sports go, India still needs to develop its entire sports system, whether it is administration or infrastructure. I have been representing India for the past 22 years and it’s only since 2008 that I started getting sponsorships. Without that support, it would not have been possible to survive this far.”
Keshavan has more on his mind beyond the Olympics. He wants to create a legacy for Luge in India. “I plan to dedicate my life to the development of winter sports in India and help young kids make a mark in these sports.” What would be his advice for all young sportsmen in the country? “Whether you win or you lose, the most important thing is to have fun,” says the fastest Asian on ice, signing off.