Shiva Keshavan is a tough guy. He hurtles around a snow track at speeds that touch 130 kmph and more, but a kitten prancing around his house is enough to invite the gentlest of laughs from him. An Asian gold medallist and four-time Winter Olympian, the 30-year-old Keshavan, born to a Malayali father and Italian mother, is India’s best and fastest hope at Sochi in 2014. FHM introduces you to the man who bought luge to India.
How did I get into luge:
The person who introduced me to luge was former world champion Gunther Lemmerer. I grew up in the snow, so I felt very at ease and was always the adventurous sort. I remember when I took the sled for the first time, I freaked out. Lemmerer convinced my parents that I have a lot of potential and that I should take it seriously. During my initial period of training, I was setting times that would qualify me for the World Cup, so he told my parents that and made Olympics a tangible target for them. Of course, my parents understood the importance of his words more than I did (laughs). My family was supportive. Scared, but supportive since it’s a high-speed sport. Bu it’s not dangerous, well, not more than any other sport. All these years that I’ve been representing India, I’ve only seen a few injuries and of course, that one tragic death at the Olympics in Vancouver. But it’s not like you get injured everyday. There’s nothing on the track that you can hit yourself against as you are just sliding around.
What do you need to become a luge athlete:
Personally, I don’t think one needs natural talent. Of course, talent scouts would look for aptitude, but in my experience, determination and will power count. I had an advantage because I had a good sense of balance – I did gymnastics in school – and also because I skied, I knew how to move on ice. There are four things that mainly matter in luge – The athlete’s physical power helps in the initial thrust that will carry the luge pilot down the track, a skilled piloting ability to manoeuvre the course, your equipment, and how well you know the track you are on. The more you weigh, the greater is the momentum you gather as you hurl down.
Olympic experience: I set my first good time at a World Cup and my coach told me that if I continued setting such good timings in five different World Cups, I would qualify for the Olympics. At that time, the idea seemed far-fetched. The World Cup was already a big thing. For me, it was cool as I got to skip school (laughs). It was a great experience travelling to all these countries and meeting different people. Travelling and training for two months seemed like a good way of living and my parents seemed happy with it. Qualifying for my first World Cup is what gave me a boost. To reach the Olympics, I had five shots at qualifying and there was no room for error. I hadn’t really let pressure or expectations get to me. I was too young I guess, but at the last World Cup I did tense up and felt the pressure. The Olympics were so near and I’d had little competitive experience. And when I qualified, it still hadn't registered that I had qualified for the OLYMPICS. I’d seen my idols on TV and suddenly I was sitting and eating lunch in the same cafeteria as them. I was too shy to go and speak to them and was of course half their age as well. It was inspiring for me to be able to see and match myself against the greats. That’s what made me think that this wasn’t out of reach. With just weeks of training I’d beaten some of the athletes so I knew that with regular practice, I could be in the same league. When I was the national ski champion, we would only talk about people like Hermann Maier and Alberto Tomba. Wild stories would fly around about Maier’s one thigh being bigger than my two put together and such. But they were just people and with training I knew I could compete with them. The first year I was timing within three seconds, which is a lot, but I was in the same qualifying slot. That gave me a lot of confidence. I saw no reason why I couldn’t do it. I also got a lot of attention in Japan from the Japanese media for being the youngest Olympic qualifier in luge ever. I think they must’ve also found me cute, as I was the size of everyone else, but was just a kid.
A day at training: I do a little bit of natural track training, but otherwise I have to go to Europe or Japan. Europe is a better option since one has a wide choice. The government had paid for my coach Yann Frichteau for 4 months in 2010 and I would like to work with him again. But what I need right now is a lot of track time. The physical preparation I can do here in India, but I ideally need to have 500-600 runs before the season begins yet I’m usually able to gather only 100 runs. It takes some time to catch up that’s why my best results come towards the end of the season. I also do yoga and I train in kalaripayat – a traditional Indian martial art.
Lack of support and funds: Once I reached a certain level, I knew I deserved to be among the best. That’s when things became difficult because there was no support. There were plenty of reasons for that. No awareness, red tape and apathy. I’ve faced all of that. After the 2002 Olympics, it rankled me to see the facilities abroad and then the non-existent ones at home. If abroad they have a team of six, there’ll be coaches, technicians, dieticians, physiotherapists and a psychologist. Porsche even does some of the equipment for the German team. All this does make a huge difference. When I won the gold medal in Japan, I rented the sled from the Japanese. It’s quite disheartening, but I’ve learnt to live with it. If there’s something standing in your way, you have to think of a way around it. I don’t have a technician so I fine tune my sled myself. I don’t have a coach, so I look at videos and self-analyse. Slowly, the attitude of the government has also changed, but it’s still slow. I always knew I would face trouble, but I didn’t know it would take them so long to acknowledge what I was doing.
Life away from luge: Over training is never good. I enjoy other sports, but to get away from luge, I go for treks. I run a restaurant along with my parents in Manali where I get to meet a lot of people. Whenever I’m travelling, I try and check out the city I’m in on a Sunday.
What next: I’m just entering the prime age for luge. I’ve just turned 30 and all champions usually peak around 30, so I have at least two more Olympics in me.