India’s most experienced Olympian, Shiva Keshavan, is on a one-man mission to promote and develop winter sports in his homestate of Himachal Pradesh
By Siddhanth Aney
Shiva Keshavan is an oddball. Or perhaps that’s just what his stars decreed. It starts with his name—the Keshavan comes from his father who traces his roots to Wayanad in Kerala. Shiva is, perhaps, a tribute to the mountains in whose shadows his parents met. He gets his light-skinned poster boy handsomeness thanks to the miracle that is a mixed-race marriage. His mother, Rosa, is Italian, but as Indian a mother as any you might have met. Who would have thought the only Indian Winter Olympian you can name is Mallu-Tuscan?
Keshavan grew up in Vashisht. Just like the maidans of Mumbai made Sachin Tendulkar, the snows of Himachal shaped Keshavan’s life, one that the boy who played on homemade sleds outside his home in the winter could not have prophesied. “From when we were very small our parents encouraged us to go out and get used to the world that surrounds us,” he tells SI India while on a quick pitstop in Delhi. “We got used to the snow and got familiar with it. In the winter months that’s all we had to play with. The option was to sit indoors, which was never really an option.”
Three decades later, he is still making sleds with his own hands—so what if they can travel at speeds in excess of 130 kmph. Keshavan is back from Nagano, where he first received the “Olympian” title back in 1998. His voice is always full, ready to talk, optimistic and yet tempered by reality. It is the hallmark of people from the hills. He won his sixth luge medal, a silver, at the continental level at the Asian Championships in Japan. Keshavan is optimistic because, for the first time, there was an Indian team at the championships that didn’t begin and end with him.
He is very cognisant of the impact Himachal Pradesh, its climate, people and terrain, have had on his life. “The first skiing course I did was when I was probably nine or 10,” he says. “After the 15-day course, we were snowed in and stuck at Solang Nala for three more. After a while we just got sick of it and decided to ski back home to Vashisht. So, yeah, I have spent a lot of time in those hills and it shaped me.” Like Keshavan, five of the other six lugers who formed the Indian contingent belong to the Kullu Valley.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case, little has been done to promote the natural affinity for winter sports among the people here. Recreationally, there is a much larger number that turns out to ski or snowboard, but the facilities for these sports are limited to Solang Nala. “The entire Chandrakhani range offers tremendous potential for development, both for recreational as well as more serious athletes. All the way from Chandrakhani Pass to Rohtang. The possibilities are endless,” he says. “We need to have a winter sports training centre. Nothing fancy, just a place with simple dorms, food, equipment and people who can help beginners get the basics right. There is great skiing out there now but it is only accessible by helicopter and so only seasoned skiers and boarders end up going there. If we can open up more parts of the state to sports tourism, it will help pave the way for investment in competitive winter sports. That’s the dream.”
A visit to Solang Nala is enough for anyone to believe in Keshavan’s dream. There are people on the snow by the hundreds. Some skilled, most not. The snow is pristine. It is an indication of how much more the state has to offer. But Solang’s popularity is also the reason those who can afford it prefer to hit the powder in Gulmarg and other parts of Kashmir. For Himachal to grab its fair share of the pie, investment is key.
And that is pretty much the story of Keshavan’s life. “I have been at it for nearly two decades without any real help from the government. But not everyone gets that lucky. If you watch the girls who came to Nagano you would be amazed. One of them, Yuva [Yuvavanti Negi], is absolutely fearless. They were calling her the iron woman. But there is little you can do, even if you’re made of steel, without the right help.”
Five years ago Keshavan held a talent scouting camp back home in Kullu. The kids he identified then were sent for a 13-day training stint to Japan. After that there was radio silence. “But I am happy they finally had the opportunity to come out and compete. If they continue to get the opportunity, particularly the girls, there is no reason they can’t do well at the international level.”
Negi, Nikita Thakur and Jahnavi Rawat placed fourth, fifth and sixth in the Class B competition. What makes the results even more impressive is that they have not had any time on the ice in the past five years. They came to Nagano with Keshavan acting as coach-cum-mentor, hired equipment from the Japanese and raced almost entirely on instinct. Even if they had arrived at the venue a week earlier and had the opportunity to get a few more training runs under their belts, there is nothing to suggest the performance wouldn’t have been better.
While the bigger battle continues, Keshavan is also struggling with his own career as a luger. For the past month, he has been working with Duncan Kennedy, a former performance director with the US luge squad. At the World Cup finals in Lake Placid in December, Keshavan finished 25th with a personal best time. Gold went to Tucker West—an American who trained under Kennedy and uses equipment built by him.
“We are using a prototype sled that Duncan and I work on in his workshop in Lake Placid,” says Keshavan. “This season is essentially to get used to the new equipment, to get a feel for the sled and make the changes we need to go faster. Gradually, the times will get better. I am also hoping to work with Indian tech companies and use our engineering expertise to develop equipment that is world class. So, right now, you can say I’m pretty into the engineering side of the story. Next season will be more serious competition as we start the buildup to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang (South Korea).”
This winter, Keshavan will not go home to Vashisht. He will, instead, spend what little time he has off with his wife in Guwahati as they prepare for life as parents. The Asian Championships were Keshavan’s first competition since he got the news. So has it made him more circumspect on the ice? “The baby is my happy thought,” he says without skipping a beat. “It doesn’t make me more cautious, just one more reason to be thankful. One more reason to enjoy the sport.”