The twists and turns of being a luge athlete in India
134.3 kmph. Asia Cup Gold. Shiva Keshavan rented last year’s Asia gold champion’s sled. Spent days fixing the angles with sandpaper. Shiva then beat him with that old sled...
Text and illustrations by Samia Singh
Illustrations: Samia Singh
SNOW-CAPPED mountains through the window. The kind we dream of in cities. He was born here, in Manali.
Keshavan, 30, walks out in a T-shirt. “Up early?”
On the breakfast table — two dabbas of aloo parathas — with oil and without. Little choices that make champions.
We drive for about 15 minutes, and the snow that looked far away is now all around us, piled a good three-feet high. It’s the end of March. People in the plains are getting their air conditioners serviced and packing up their woollens. We’re far from the average Indian terrain. “The first sport as a kid is to slide down snow. Street luge is also common, kids make their own carts using old wood, bearings and a few nails .”
He drives with tested force up the mountain’s curves. “My dad used to run an adventure camp, the first in Manali. I looked forward to taking people on treks as a guide. They run courses here — trekking, mountaineering, rock climbing… I’ve taken them all,” he laughs.
We arrive and Keshavan changes into a bike suit and helmet. The next two days will be long, he’s shooting an advertisement for MTS. A part Russian company, they’re Keshavan’s biggest Indian sponsors. “They might let me practise on the track in Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Normally, they’d only do that for their own team.”
Namita, Keshavan’s wife and sports manager, stands with a box of soaked almonds, looking on as the director explains the shots to Keshavan. “He likes me to stand facing him when he’s facing a camera or giving an interview. He likes me there,” she says. “We met in Florence.”
“Oooh, she’s starting like that because it sounds cool and all,” Keshavan laughs as he positions himself on the street luge sled. “We were in school together, a year apart. We didn’t know each other then,” Namita adds.
“That’s ’cause you were too busy mugging for exams,” he teases.
“I met him and he told me how he was struggling with funding. I was shocked, he was doing all the running around himself. I said I’ll do it,” Namita stares up towards Rohtang and takes a deep breath. “After my MBA, I did a course in organisational psychology from London. But I didn’t know anything about sport management. My first meeting, I stammered my way through. I helped him get sponsorship from Swiss International Airlines. After you get one big sponsor, it gets a bit easier.”
1.5 km track. Speed of up to 155 kmph. Centrifugal pull of up to 5Gs
‘The sled has no suspension, your body acts like a shock absorber. The time on the track feels very slow. There you don’t feel the adrenalin. There is fear. One mistake and you are gone. When you finish, that’s when you realise how fast your heart was beating’
“...Conferences, business meets. A whole lot of talks and lunches but you don’t feel much. But these sportsmen, it’s really something,” she offers me an orange. “You know before the luge race, all the participants are in this room. Eyes closed — all of them. You have to know the track and simulate it. Every curve and slope. They stand before the race, all visualising their track. Each has their own way — their own style. It’s like a dance. It’s beautiful.”
The street luge sled Keshavan uses was brought from Brazil. “They sent the sled without the wheels! We had to source some from Delhi. The wheels should be like an oval disk so they can handle the angles on the turns. These aren’t ideal,” says Namita as Keshavan gears up for a test run.
The crew suddenly on high alert. A car is speeding up the hill as Keshavan hurtles down.
“Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesh,” Shalu, a friend and part of Keshavan’s Manali family, whistles loud enough for the car 20-feet on the road below to hear. A screeching brake and soon Keshavan whizzes onto the next curve.
“I don’t think they are letting me take the sled out like that again,” smiles Keshavan once he’s done. It begins to rain and an ice cold wind reaches past our woollen caps and threatens a headache. “It’s called the Rohtang wind. See, none of the locals are outside. They don’t come out in this weather.”
Keshavan’s Italian mother Rosalba and father Sudhakaran met in Manali. His younger brother Devan plays football for an amateur league in Italy. “Italy offered me a position in their team and a post in the Italian police, but I wanted to be here. I’ve grown up here.”
Back home, whiffs of a mutton broth have brought their three cats and two dogs close to the table. Rosalba comes down for dinner. The staircase has about 30 medals, mounted on three intricate velvet frames. “I used to play volleyball for Italy,” she says. “These ones are for athletics. My father and I made these frames. They were far inside somewhere. I don’t know why they put them up.”
“The Himachal Government has still not given Keshavan recognition. Even after winning the Asia Cup Gold. They do nothing. They say they misplaced the papers. For the (2010 Winter) Olympics, the Indian team didn’t bring the team kit for Keshavan. He competed in his own clothes,” she says.
“Sport is above politics. An athlete should not have to run after the government for money and recognition. Aggression and confidence need to be built into a sportsman. Not neediness and touching politician’s feet.” She should know.
“Wars stop during the Olympic Truce.” Keshavan’s gaze steadies on Namita’s new cat introducing herself to their dog. “Sport is nation-building. There’s a difference between the game and the sport. The game is for the medal, for breaking your own record, a medal for the country. The sport gives a village, a community something to look forward to. There are so many people here, hanging around doing nothing. Sport gives you enough. You don’t feel the pull of drugs and alcohol. A sportsman’s mind even off the field will think of constructive things.” He flicks a stone. “We started the Roots Festival in Kerala. There’s music and football. People come together.”
Keshavan points out a neat list of 21 aims and objectives on the Himachal Government’s website, under youth and sport activities. “The government pretends nothing is wrong. Like an ostrich. They have done nothing. Athletes are suffering.”
“Don’t worry about these things. You focus on the gold,” his friend Shalu says, smiling seriously. Namita tells me, “Keshavan didn’t have a new sled last year. He requested last year’s Asian gold champion to rent him his old sled . He worked on that with sandpaper. Spent days fixing the angles. He beat him with his old sled!”
Rosalba is laying the table. Behind her, are posters of the Asia Cup in Nagano and Winter Olympics in Vancouver. A bird perched on ski sticks silhouetted against the snowline in the evening. A girl twirling on ice skates. “First time he practised on the track, I couldn’t breathe. It’s very dangerous”
“He couldn’t participate in the last competition because we didn’t have funds.” She brings in some salad from the kitchen.
The Asian speed record, now set by Keshavan is 134.3 kmph at Nagano. His Olympic record is 149.9 kmph at the Vancouver Olympics.
“There are three stages. Before the race you are warming up, trying to focus. When you are on the track, you have to relax. The sled has no suspension, your body acts like a shock absorber. You have no choice. You have to relax. The time in the track feels very slow. There you don’t feel the adrenalin. There is fear. One mistake and you are gone. So that fear heightens your reflexes. When you finish that’s when you realise how fast your heart was beating. It’s not an adrenalin junkie sort of sport, even though it might seem like that. You have to become one with the track. You have to be very calm.”
Before dropping me to the bus, Keshavan has to buy vegetables for the house. He stops to hug and chat with the vegetable vendor. “They went to school together, here,” says Namita. It may be a bumpy track, but he knows where he started from and where he’s headed to.
Samia Singh is an Assistant Art Director with Tehelka.