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Legend of the luge

2:02

India's very own 'Iceman'

Indian luge competitor Shiva Keshavan will look to bow out on a high at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

He lies flat on his back on a sled, enduring a gravitational force similar to what an astronaut experiences during a rocket launch, and slides down a steep-banked ice tunnel feet first at shutter speed. He can occasionally lift his head to see where he's hurtling towards but there are no brakes and no scope to change what lies ahead. He could be thrown off course at a curve, hit his head against a steel pole and even be killed before paramedics are called in.

That's what Shiva Keshavan, the reigning Asian champion in luge, does, day after day in training and in competition. This weekend, he'll represent India in his sixth and final Winter Olympics (cross-country skier Jagdish Singh completes the two-man squad) in Pyeongchang. Only Leander Paes, among Indians, has participated in more number of Olympics but where he is almost a household name, Shiva, at 36, is as unfamiliar as the sport he has chosen.

Shiva isn't quite in the medal hunt for the Pyeongchang Games but you could, in fact, say he's already a winner for his lonely mission, spanning two decades, in an obscure sport in freezing conditions. In a country where interest in winter sport is non-existent, he's both the advertiser and the product, seeking sponsors for six months a year, competing for the next five and lately even taking upon himself the task of educating Twitterati about the sport through polls and quizzes.

We speak to Shiva a month before the Games and he's multitasking at Olympian level: training runs, competitions, long flights, layovers, jetlag. This is the rush hour of winter sport - October to February - at a time of year when most athletes wind down their calendars, chalk out off-season plans and hurry into a break. His most recent win came in Altenberg, Germany in December last year, where he won his fourth Asian Cup gold medal with a timing of 55.60 seconds.

To do what Shiva does though, you'd have to be more than just an adrenaline junkie. You'd need the heart of a speed maniac and the mind of a Zen guru. "You're dealing with extreme conditions: high speed, aerodynamic drag and high g-force which keeps pushing you down all the time, sometimes up to 7-10g's or seven to 10 times your body weight," he says, "So you have to withstand all those conditions, not let that get to you, remain absolutely calm and still do your normal manoeuvring of the sled. In a slippery medium like ice any sudden movement can just send your sled into a spin. It is more about instinct, reaction time. In fact, the more relaxed you are, it actually translates into speed and your body starts absorbing all the bumps and imperfections on the ice. Once you leave the handles at the start, you don't have any choice but to reach the finish. There's just no backing out."

Essentially, higher body weight translates into greater speed on the track. The heavier an athlete is, the stronger the force of gravity pulling him down. Shiva seems to fit the profile rather well. He's reasonably bulky with a thick mop of hair, parted down the middle and nearly reaching his shoulders.

"It had everything that I identified with - speed, thrill, adventure, technical ability, and apparently I had a talent for it too."

His training run clip at the Sochi Games four years ago made for a mind-bending watch and turned him into an unlikely internet sensation. Making a wild mid-run recovery after falling off his sled on his stomach while hurtling at 70mph in what appeared like a horrific crash,Shiva flipped over, got back into position and completed the race like nothing had happened. It was to be metaphorical of his journey in sport.

***

Shiva and his younger sibling Devan Daniel were no strangers to racing down slopes; they grew up in the Himalayas, in Manali, where the family then ran an adventure sports company. But how Shiva picked up the sled is almost a cliché: the film Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican bobsled team making it to the Winter Olympics, prompted the International Luge Federation to scout for talent in unlikely destinations around the world, including India. So both were picked by their school in Sanawar, near Shimla, to be dispatched for the camp. It was conducted by world champion Gunther Lemmerer in Panchkula, near Chandigarh. The kids were treated to a screening of the movie followed by a shot at the sport of luge. Devan was politely told that he'd have to gain in weight and years to be better suited for it. But Shiva, then aged 14, caught their eye.

"I hadn't heard of the sport before but it had everything that I identified with - speed, thrill, adventure, technical ability, and apparently I had a talent for it too," says Shiva. Since what they did in India was the roller version of the sport (on a sled with wheels), the federation invited him to travel to Austria, try the sport on ice and learn and compete against other athletes.

Devan, now a UEFA 'B' license football coach with successful stints at Italian Serie A side Fiorentina and FC Pune City in the Indian Super League, says he's only glad that it turned out that way. "Actually I quite enjoyed luge myself when I tried it for the first time with Shiva. But I was too thin and light and Shiva really liked the speed and adrenaline. He picked it up soon and kept going even though there were a million reasons to give up. Only he could have done that."

Suddenly, the family was chasing a new dream and Shiva's sport-loving parents tried to keep pace. His Italian mother Rosalba and Indian father Sudhakaran were aware of luge being one of the most dangerous Olympic disciplines but didn't think it was a fair enough reason to thwart Shiva's dream. Rosalba had an idea of Shiva's luck with accidents when he was still a toddler. One day, at their home in Manali in the Himalayas, Shiva, then two, spilt hot milk on himself. But nothing happened. "After that," Rosalba laughs, "I was confident that he can do anything and God will protect him. Also, I think adventure is in his genes."

She's speaking of her own journey three and a half decades ago when she took a road trip to India from her home in Florence, Italy, over 6000 kilometers apart. "Indian culture was very famous then you know, during the 1960s and 70s. Even in Italy, we were dreaming of India." She met Shiva's father, who hails from Kerala, while backpacking in Manali and they ended up settling down in the town of Vashisht. They now run an Italian restaurant, Rose Garden, which serves Tuscan dishes cooked on a wood-fired oven with ingredients grown on the same patch of land with Rosalba training the cooks and overseeing operations.

Through his competing years in the sport as a young teen, Shiva was rarely named in the Himachal Pradesh team for tournaments but was instead routinely shunted into teams of other states, including Rajasthan or Haryana. Rosalba suspects it was down to the lack of a full-fledged Himachali identity. "It caused us a lot of anguish to be treated like outsiders," she says. "But recently things changed for the better. With his success in sport, I think Shiva is finally seen as a Himachali."

Being an "outsider" wasn't the only issue. During his early years in the sport Shiva was mocked for being a non-entity in an anonymous sport whenever he sought support. "People told me to go achieve something before asking for help. When I became the youngest ever to qualify for the Winter Olympics, I was told that only a medal would count. Then I won an Asian Cup gold medal but that didn't change anything either."

And so his wife Namita, whom he met during one of his many visits to potential backers, was convinced of his cause and quit her job to hunt for sponsors. After cold-calling over 100 companies off an excel sheet in 2008, they managed to land three sponsors. But the struggle for sustained support continues. Less than a fortnight ahead of his final Winter Olympics, Shiva was sanctioned Rs 20 lakhs ($31,000 approx.) under the government's Target Olympic Podium scheme, which will hopefully help pay off some of the debts he's incurred in training expenses. In fact, to make it to the 2014 Games, in Sochi, he launched a crowd-funding drive and his suit had names of all the donors written across it. Government assistance arrived three months after the Olympics.

***

His challenges don't end there. There's no luge track in India so Shiva is forced to compete entirely on the global circuit. Training at home means hitting the roads on a modified sled with wheels, swerving in and out of traffic, avoiding livestock and querulous stares. Travel is severely restricted. "We're talking of five months of travelling and races in 12 different countries in the winter," says Shiva, "So based on the money I manage to raise from different quarters I plan my schedule. Of course it's not easy to get the money one needs (roughly Rs 1 crore or $155000 for a year's competition, travel and training expenses) so I end up cutting down on training, races and opt for lesser quality facilities or worse equipment. In fact I didn't have a coach for the most part of my career."

It's only for the past three years that Shiva has been working with US luge team's former technical director Duncan Kennedy - also a trailblazer for the sport in his own country and the first American to win a luge World Cup event in early 1991. He was forced to retire, after suffering from bleeding in his brain stem, only seven weeks short of his fourth Winter Olympics appearance in Nagano in 1998. That was the edition in which a 16-year-old Shiva was to make his debut at the Games.

Shiva became the youngest-ever qualifier in luge and the sole Indian representative that year. "During the opening ceremony, I was walking between two massive 200-odd member teams - Great Britain and Italy and here I was, the only person from my country. I felt like a complete misfit. That's when some members from the Jamaican team came up to me and said, 'Hey man, we've got to stick it out together!' That's sport, I guess, it unites us in so many different ways."

For Shiva particularly, it's been a blessing.

"We are always looking out for each other and it's not just confined to the 50 seconds we're competing."

Right from his first Olympic appearance, where he was almost denied entry into the Games village since India did not send official papers recognizing him as a representative, going on to compete on a sled borrowed from the Korean team and finishing ahead of them. Last December, just ahead of the World Cup in Calgary his sled runners cracked. "Croatian pilot Daria Obratov was kind enough to lend me hers and even though it was far from the perfect size, I managed," Shiva says. Actually, he did more than that. That race ended up earning him a spot in Pyeongchang.

Much of Shiva's career has had him flitting from team to team, trying to find support with equipment and training and he's come off with more than just that. He's a popular name at competitions with members and supporters of other teams and has picked up four foreign languages along the way - Italian, French, German and basic Japanese. The tight group and willing outreach within the luge community has also, to a large measure, to do with the nature of the sport: Timed to a thousandth of a second, break-neck speed and dangerous. "We are always looking out for each other and it's not just confined to the 50 seconds we're competing."

For his family too, competitions can make for anxious, nerve-wracking moments. On the eve of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Shiva's wife feared that her worst nightmare had come true. At the airport, while en route to the Canadian city, she was informed by an immigration officer about a death on the luge track during the training run that day. 'I think it was a name that sounded like Kumar', was all he had gathered. "My heart stopped. I froze," Namita says, "It was an Indian-sounding name and Shiva was the only Indian out there. Only after a few phone calls was I mildly relieved." It was actually Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili, who missed a line on the track, was thrown off his sled and died. Incidentally, Shiva was the next on track.

***

Hand-me-down clothing and borrowed or second-hand sleds (he named one Maruti) or fashioning one at the garage in his home -have been Shiva's most trusted allies through his five Olympic appearances. His competitors, meanwhile, have cutting-edge technology, mainly in collaboration with tech and automobile giants - Germany has a long-standing association with BMW, Austria with Mercedes and the USA with multinational Dow Chemicals (borrowing from their experience of having worked with NASCAR) and expeditions to wind tunnels every year to simulate the resistive forces and shave a few hundredths of a second in competition.

This time, Shiva chuckles, he's got 'state-of-the-art' equipment. Kennedy, who runs a sled-building business, built one in his own shop with Shiva lending a hand. Made out of fiberglass and steel, a typical luge sled is built for top speed, minimal friction and optimal aerodynamics. "Duncan has a milling machine in his garage so the steel was milled there after which he angled the arc and curve of the steel and every day both of us filed it with sandpaper and diamond paste."

The shinier and smoother the surface of the steel, the less friction. Everything the athlete does, uses or wears - including angles of the hip, ankles or knees, pointed toes, skin-tight suit and rounded visor- is designed to minimize aerodynamic drag. As for a wind tunnel, he hasn't seen one in his life. "The steel we're using this year is a hardened variety from railway tracks," says Shiva. "The steel gets harder as more trains go over it; similarly, the more runs we have, the harder the surface becomes and less dirt or stones can damage or slow it down."

The primary athletic part of the sport is the start since it's what gives the initial momentum so a lot of the training that sliders do centers around an explosive start. "We need both speed and mass in training," Shiva explains, "It's about being fast like a 100m sprinter and strong like a weightlifter. A lot of it can be about how you use your muscles or movements in an optimal way and develop techniques for the best-possible start. The more you stretch out and the flatter you are on the sled, the less drag you create." So the ideal scenario would be for sliders to go down the winding arm of the track without any looking at all. It's where the benefit of experience kicks in and also the reason why sliders peak in their 30s.

"If the world needs more freaks, I wouldn't mind being known as one either."

In addition to physical preparedness, training the mind is essential. The start house where lugers await their turn on the track is revelatory. Eyes closed, hands gliding down the imaginary turns and curves and stationary torsos keeping up, each slider is in a state of trance. "Physically there's only so many times you can go down a course in a day but mentally there's no limit. It helps you overcome the hurdles you have in your mind, some curve that you've been having problems with or your body tenses up on," Shiva says.

Once you're on the track, the mind goes blank, you're yanked into the present and the 50-second run seems like eternity. "It's because you know there's speed and danger and so your mind is fully alert and focused."

***

As he approaches his final big tournament, it's fair to ask Shiva about his future and legacy. He laughs at the apology that swiftly follows for any unintended hurt. "In a way, I followed my own path and despite the odds, managed to find success in my own little way. My journey has been my message. That should be decent enough. But if the world needs more freaks, I wouldn't mind being known as one either."

In 2002, Shiva had an opportunity to upgrade to a more comfortable existence: The Italian team offered to take him on. But he refused. "The junior boys in the Italian team then are medalists now so, yes, I'm sure I would have been a very different athlete today had I taken it up. But I wanted to set the course for winter sport in India and this was the only way to do it."

While Shiva doesn't have it all chalked out yet, he has a mentorship role in mind for the immediate future. He hasn't ever had a job despite sending out tireless applications to the government and PSUs. "I have a two and a half year old daughter now and don't earn a salary. People still don't understand that even athletes have a normal life, they still have to eat food and feed their kids."

For Rosalba it's a relief that Shiva won't be competing in the sport anymore after February this year. "I can finally sleep well. I'm sure he will decide on a fresh path to pursue after the Olympics."

Coach Duncan agrees. "Shiva has been battling it out alone for a really long time. Even for me looking at from the outside it's exasperating. And he's just one guy not a 10-man team so I thought it was really an easy way for India to get its name out there in an area they normally wouldn't."

Brother Devan sees a side that perhaps only a sibling can. "There were many occasions when I've asked Kesh (as he fondly calls Shiva) to quit but he was determined to carry on. What I cherish most these days is when we are on the football field. It brings back old memories of when we played a sport together."

He mentions an incident from a football tournament in Florence a few years ago, organized as part of an anti-racism drive. The brothers were part of the only multi-ethnic team in the fray up against 18 national sides. "We were playing tough opponents and were extra determined to block any threat towards our goal. Then at one point we were deep into our half and one of their forwards took a shot at the goal from the top of the D. Our 'keeper was beaten and all hope seemed lost. Suddenly we saw this diving figure come in from out of nowhere and head the ball away. It was Kesh. That's the thing about him. He believes when most people don't."