LIVING WITH NO BRAKES, THE SHIVA KESHAVAN STORY

Shiva Keshavan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Shiva Keshavan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

1973. That year, a traveller from Thalassery in Kerala, reached a Manali, quieter, greener and less touristy than today. “ There was no direct bus from Delhi to Manali. There was a Youth Hostel you could stay at for one rupee a night or so. The now well known Pandoh Dam was yet to be completed,’’ K.P. Sudhakaran said. The way he spoke, his travels resting light on his shoulders, reminded me of someone else I knew in Kerala; a person who had seen a tonne of films. You wouldn’t know his knowledge of movies till you coaxed him to speak about it. The pre-Facebook generation, I told myself.

Sudhakaran made Manali home, settling down there with his Italian wife Rosalba Lucioli. They met in the hill town. Sudhakaran used to trek a lot. In the hill tourism scene of that time, Jammu & Kashmir was perceived as “ commercial.’’ Himachal Pradesh was “ relaxed.’’ When Kashmir grew troubled, Sudhakaran’s hikes became more focussed on Himachal. In 1984-85, long before contemporary Manali and its plethora of adventure tour operators, Sudhakaran founded Panman Adventure Travels. Its main activity was organizing outdoor trips and camps for school students. Later, he and his wife started an Italian restaurant, Rose Garden. Panman Adventure Travels exists no more. But Rose Garden does. Located on the road to Vasisht, it is currently managed by Sudhakaran’s son Shiva Keshavan and his wife, Namita. That’s where I first met Sudhakaran. We had a small chat over coffee. Shiva, India’s best known luger, was away in Italy. Sudhakaran splits his time between Manali and a coffee estate in Wayanad, Kerala.

A luge is a small one or two person-sled, on which one sleds supine (face up) and feet-first – that’s how Wikipedia describes it. Many of us, who checked out the sport after Shiva Keshavan grabbed our attention, would recall the specially made track on which races are held. Like all sports, born for fun, evolving organically and then shaped by the compulsions of modern sport and entertainment, the luge too wasn’t born for a track. While the earliest recorded sled races are said to have been in Norway, luge is traced to Switzerland; its history includes a hotel entrepreneur at whose resort, guests adapted sleds used by delivery boys, to speed down the lanes and alleys of the village for fun. Needless to say, there were collisions with pedestrians. The first organized meeting of the sport was in 1883 in Switzerland, the first world championship in the sport was in 1955 in Oslo, Norway. While the modern Olympic Games began in Athens in 1896, the first Winter Olympics – recognized so in retrospect – was at Chamonix in 1924. Luge made its Olympic debut at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

Early March 2016, months after meeting Sudhkaran in Manali and exchanging mails with a Shiva busy training and competing, I got a call. Father and son were flying from Kozhikode to Delhi via Mumbai. We met at the airport in Santa Cruz. Two men, four or five pieces of luggage, one with the Olympic rings on it – I will never forget that. Sudhakaran and Rosalba have two sons, Shiva and Devan, who is a licensed football coach for FIFA. Shiva was born in August 1981. “ Born and brought up in Vasisht,’’ the luger said. A year before Sudhakaran reached Manali, in February1972, the Winter Olympic Games was held for the first time at a venue outside Europe and North America – it was hosted by Sapporo, Japan. Luge in Sapporo was dominated by the East Germans. They bagged eight of the nine medals in the event. The planet’s Winter Olympics don’t fascinate the media as much as the bigger Summer Olympics. The 1970s were also years before television acquired national presence in India. The February snows of Sapporo were 6000 kilometres east of Manali; out of sight, out of mind.

Youngsters with an improvised winter sled near Manali (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

Youngsters with an improvised winter sled near Manali (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

Located just south of the main Himalaya cutting diagonally across the crown of India, Manali receives good precipitation. Ladakh to the north may be higher and colder but it is drier. In winter, Manali and its nearby localities like Solang, receive good snowfall. Solang is known for skiing. The children of Rosalba and Sudhakaran grew up on Manali’s mountain slopes, enjoying the snow. If you look carefully, like cricket played in alleys and hockey played with tin cans, the seed of all sports exist everywhere. With little access to modern skiing equipment, the Manali of Shiva’s childhood had its resident skiers; they took to winter’s snow with crude, homemade skis. “ You know the blade of the saw used to cut logs? Strips of that would be attached to the bottom of wooden skis,’’ Sudhakaran said. Also around were improvised sleds. According to Sudhakaran, the family spent a lot of time in Solang. Shiva grew to be a decent skier. Unlike skiing, which stayed confined to winters, the sled metamorphosed to year round-life.

Youngsters with improvised summer luges on the hill slopes near Manali (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

Youngsters with improvised summer luges on the hill slopes near Manali (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

The first time I saw the summer avatar of a sled was in Darjeeling, in 1996. A boy seated on a wooden platform fitted with four tiny, noisy metal wheels, his hands clutching a tight arc of rope in front to keep body in place – came hurtling down the winding road. Holding the rope, he leaned back on the platform, legs stretched out in front and torso rising to an upright position every time he needed to slow down the contraption. Brakes, it had none, save its high decibel, grating noise on rough road as early warning to avoid collision. Similar, improvised contraptions existed in Manali too, entertaining Shiva and his friends. They took to it, rolling down Manali’s roads (one media report also talks of a small sled gifted to Shiva by his Italian grandparents). When you are young, you are free of fear. Although Sudhakaran took his family to the snows every winter and watched his sons enjoy skiing, he was restrained by the baggage of fear, which accompanies adulthood. “ I was a grown man and suitably scared,’’ he said. Shiva became a promising national level skier in the sub junior and junior categories, winning prizes. However, participating in events like the National Winter Games wasn’t easy for this son of immigrants to the Himalaya. Unable to secure a berth through the local winter sports body, Shiva recalled that his first participation at national level had to be through the Rajasthan Skiing Association. Born in a Himalayan state and needing a desert state’s team, to ski at national level – such is the organizational architecture and politics of Indian sport. It was the beginning of a long, rough relationship with domestic sport authorities, many of them hewn from that typically Indian controlling-mindset, which ensures that any sport has a well entrenched bureaucracy even before people take to the sport. Shiva never competed at the senior national level in skiing. He gave up competitive skiing after he was excluded from the team selected for the Junior Asian Championships. Unknown to him, those improvised sleds and the experience they offered, would become the stuff of his destiny

Established in 1847, The Lawrence School at Sanawar in Kasauli is among India’s most prestigious boarding schools. This is where Shiva studied. He was very active in sports with presence in gymnastics; athletics, football, hockey and skiing. It was during his years at this school that he was dispatched for a` ` ski camp’’ at Panchkula. A skier being sent to a ski camp was quite understandable, except for one puzzling detail – Panchkula is in Haryana. You don’t get snow there. The camp was held by the International Luge Federation (FIL) and Shiva, already intrigued by Panchkula as choice of camp location, had no idea what luge was. At the camp was well known Austrian luger, Gunter Lemmerer. He had participated in two Winter Olympics, been a gold medallist in the European championships and thrice won (with fellow Austrian luger Reinhold Sulzbacher) the men’s doubles Luge World Cup. For the camp, Gunter had brought along a couple of modified sleds in which, the blades had been replaced with wheels. Shiva warmed up to what he saw. Luge was similar to what he had done on improvised sleds back in Manali. “ At this point, it was all fun with no future plan in mind,’’ Shiva said. However, as things turned out, he and another youngster were selected for further training in Austria. “ The whole skiing experience had been disappointing, so we wanted to try luge,’’ Sudhakaran said. In 1996, He and Rosalba sent Shiva to Austria. The transition from the sleds with wheels Shiva used at Panchkula, to a real luge on ice was significant. The luge on ice was much faster. Newcomers started their training on the less steep lower portions of the luge course and slowly worked their way up. Shiva’s Indian partner at luge (they were two selected from the Panchkula camp) suffered a crash. He needed medical attention and the duo had no insurance specifically for such mishaps. Eventually it had to be passed off as an accident that occurred while travelling.

A modern luge adapted for the road, fitted with wheels. From a talent scouting camp held by Shiva and Namita at Solang near Manali (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

A modern luge adapted for the road, fitted with wheels. From a talent scouting camp held by Shiva and Namita at Solang near Manali (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

Luger coasting down the road at Solang; from the talent scouting camp (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

Luger coasting down the road at Solang; from the talent scouting camp (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

The following year, 1997, Shiva was back in Europe – Austria and Germany – training for a longer time. He was around international athletes. That gave him his first reference point in luge, an idea of where he stood in the sport with his competence, what he had to do to improve. “ They found it funny that an Indian family was trying to get a toehold in luge,’’ he said. But one thing worked – athletes help each other, they provide you tips, particularly when you are in that performance category, which poses no threat. He learnt. The international athletes let Shiva be a `forerunner’ opening the track for them at the World Cup in Igls near Innsbruck. He did so and zoomed the whole distance down the course. To his surprise and likely everyone else’s, the timing he returned was good enough to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics. Until 1998, there was no formal selection to participate in the Winter Olympics. It was up to each country to select athletes and send them. “ People started misusing this. I was the first Indian to reach the Winter Olympics through a formal qualifying system,’’ Shiva said. This process wasn’t easy. Although his timing at Igls was good, the eligibility process required Shiva to qualify for five of nine World Cup competitions held every year. Gunter Lemmerer advised Shiva to return to India and start training for the World Cup events. Somehow his parents came up with the money for the exercise. At the first of these World Cups in Innsbruck, he raced with a broken foot. This was followed by two World Cups in Germany, one in Norway and one in Japan. “ Incredibly at each of these races, I didn’t make a mistake. I qualified at all five,’’ Shiva said. The 1998 Winter Olympics were scheduled to be held in Nagano, Japan, the second time the Winter Olympics would be held in Asia. Sudhakaran had reached Manali the year after the first Winter Olympics in Asia, in Sapporo, Japan. In the time since, he had married, raised a family and now his son was heading for nothing less than the Winter Olympics.

According to Wikipedia, racing sleds for luge singles weigh between 21-25 kilos; in the case of doubles, between 25-30 kilos. Lugers can reach speeds of up to 140 kilometres per hour. The highest speed reported so far (as of March 2016) was 154 kilometres per hour set by Austria’s Manuel Pfister in 2010. In videos, a luger passing by resembles a streak. The luge is designed for speed. A luge sled rides on a pair of steel blades made such that the craft slides fast over ice. The sled has no saddle. You lay down flat on the sled and slide down the course feet first, which is the most aerodynamic position you can have. In training, lugers are known to use wind tunnels to figure out the best aerodynamics they can have. But because you are supine and going feet first, you are challenged to see clearly where you are headed. The runners (blades) underneath the sled curve up in front and touch the athlete’s legs as he lay supine. Steering is done by pushing on the runners with your legs and flexing the sled with one’s shoulders. The luger is clad in a special suit designed to make him aerodynamic. A fast object like the luge also needs stability. Strength and weight therefore matter. A light luger may add artificial weight. When starting off at the top of a course, the luger uses his arms to propel forward. The athlete must be powerful around the shoulders and arms. Lying supine on a platform lacking saddle and controlling the luge requires excellent core strength. It shows in Shiva – he is over six feet tall and well built without being heavy. You get a sense of person reverse engineered from the needs of life on sled. With so much emphasis on speed and aerodynamics, luge is a precisely timed sport; in fact among sports, one of the most precisely timed. Amazingly, amid this obsession with speed and despite its minimalist flying projectile-character, the luge does not have a brake. Marry all this to the high speed the luge is capable of. It is a risky sport. The most recent high profile accident was Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s demise in a crash during a practice run at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Rosalba accompanied Shiva on his tours just once. She couldn’t take it after that. Sudhakaran has watched Shiva in action, more. “ Every time he zips down that course, my heart is in my mouth,’’ Sudhakaran said. With no means to afford a coach for his son, Sudhakaran, who had watched Shiva’s journey from the sidelines, decided to accompany him as his coach, to Nagano.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The father and son team from India were the first people to reach the Olympic village. The Indian authorities hadn’t yet sent in his documents. It caused confusion over whether they can be allowed in or not. The Japanese were courteous and hospitable. After some discussions, they let them in. Although India hadn’t yet sent in Shiva’s papers, the organizers knew of him. There was a reason – he was 16 years old, the youngest athlete to qualify for luge in the history of the Winter Olympics. On February 3, 1998, Jere Longman’s article appeared in The New York Times headlined, ` Olympics: Nagano 1998; Teenage Luger Carries All of India.’ Longman wrote in the introduction: Of all the places that Sudhakaran Palankandy expected to be next Saturday morning, none of them included walking with his son in the opening ceremony at the 1998 Winter Olympics. “ We never thought luge would start in India,’’ the innkeeper said. As a mode of transportation for India’s 896 million people, sliding is not high on the list. But 16 year-old Shiva Keshavan Palankandy has improbably qualified as the only athlete to represent India at the Nagano Games. On Saturday, he will carry the national flag in the opening ceremony, while his father walks behind him as the team leader. Nagano is where the Shiva Keshavan story took off. For his age and experience, he reckons he did well. “ Obviously I wanted to do better,’’ he said. But listening to him and Sudhakaran, I felt, it was at Nagano that world and sport reached out to support them The New York Times article mentions that Shiva received some financial assistance from FIL to participate at Nagano. His travel cost was borne by Rosalba and Sudhakaran. He found fellow athletes being helpful towards him, providing tips on how to improve at luge. “ The sport is dangerous. So people don’t hold back on advice,’’ Shiva said. Perhaps the most interesting thing was that he had no luge. At his first World Cup, the Korean team loaned him a luge they used for practice. At other events including Nagano, the story was similar – Shiva’s luge was borrowed. Incredibly, it would be another 12 years before India’s Winter Olympics athlete, the youngest luger in the history of the Games to qualify for the sport, would acquire his own luge. “ I bought my first luge in 2010,’’ Shiva said.

A luge Shiva made; one of the earlier models he used (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

A luge Shiva made; one of the earlier models he used (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

From 1998 till the time of writing this article, Shiva Keshavan had participated in five Winter Olympics. In 2005 and 2008, he secured bronze at the Asian Luge Cup, in 2009 he secured silver and in 2011 and 2012, he secured gold. In 2011, he set a new Asian speed record in luge, racing down the course at 134.3 kilometres per hour. The fastest he has ever been is 149.9 kilometres per hour. I asked him what he felt lying supine on a luge, moving super fast down an ice laden course. “ The run lasts less than a minute but for me on the luge, it is like never ending. That’s one of the incredible things about this sport – it feels like you are stretching time,’’ Shiva said. Within that sense of stretched time, the luger is alert to every small detail for steering the luge is a matter of tiny body movements capable of great impact on projectile’s fate.

The luge was using at the time of writing this article (early 2016); made in league with Duncan Kennedy and Clarkson University (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

The luge Shiva was using at the time of writing this article (early 2016); made in league with Duncan Kennedy and Clarkson University (Photo: courtesy Shiva Keshavan)

“ Ice is a sensitive surface that exaggerates response. Any small twitch of your body and the sled responds. The first challenge in luge is to handle things very calmly despite the obvious dangers in that stretched period of time. You have to discipline your mind. It happens on its own on the sled. Your body knows it is in danger,’’ he said. And what does he think about the luge not having any brakes? “ I never really thought of it that way. It kind of unlocks your fear. It reduces options and puts the focus on natural talent. There is no room for slowing down or being cautious. You have to approach it 100 per cent.’’ Competitions happen on well established courses. As a competitive athlete, Shiva does a lot of visualization of the course while preparing for an event. He has been down all the courses used at luge World Cups, except the new track coming up in South Korea for the next Winter Olympics. However, notwithstanding repeated visits and the benefits of visualization, there are subtle variations in atmospheric and ice conditions that act as variables to tackle on a given competition day.

At Nagano, Shiva was one of the youngest athletes around. Now 34 years old, he is part of the older lot but still having room to improve for there are winners in luge who are in their forties. His struggle so far has been getting his act together, for luge is not just about excellence by luger, you need a good coach, support team and a good luge. In his early years at competitions, Team Shiva Keshavan used to be a combination of self, parents and borrowed luge. Although that has changed, it is still a far cry from how other teams turn up. “ They come with cutting edge sleds, sled technicians, five to six coaches, physiotherapist and biomechanics specialists,’’ Shiva said. He has been lucky enough to not need a physiotherapist so far. But the lack of a good coach hurts. “ I have never been able to hire a good coach. I never had the money for it,’’ he said. Another challenge was the sled, the luge itself. For years he reported to competitions without his own luge, competing eventually with a sled somebody else provided. That may have challenged him personally to improve his being and techniques but the point is – the more a luger improves, the more he deserves a fine luge. His first sleds were all “ hand-me-down’’ specimens. In 2010, he got his own luge built in Albertville, France. It was based on moulds taken from a model he had used with some innovations thrown in. “ It was very simple but didn’t have adequate symmetry. I wasted many years trying to innovate wrongly. The idea was good but I wasn’t doing it the right way,’’ Shiva said. To understand what luge is to top notch luger, we should imagine Formula One racing. There are technical parameters to comply with regarding one’s ride and room for innovation. Shiva did try working with Indian institutions; at one point he spoke to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi on designing his luge. It didn’t work. The reasons were not articulated but it can be gauged: designing a fine luge entails convergence of engineering, knowledge of materials and ability to think back from the sport. It is hard finding this convergent fascination in India. If you dwell on it, a luge for Shiva is a fine chance to showcase design, knowledge of materials, engineering ability and manufacturing skill in an uncluttered product for the sled is a simple object to behold. Made, it will be used by a luger who hasn’t hesitated to push his limits. Somehow, this opportunity hasn’t captivated India’s designing and engineering minds.

Sudhakaran and Shiva (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sudhakaran and Shiva (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Eventually in 2015, Shiva began working with Duncan Kennedy, the retired American luger who had competed in three Winter Olympics, placed second twice in the Luge World Cup and was the first American to win a World Cup event. Duncan builds sleds; he has a workshop where he does it. They – Shiva, Duncan and the New York based-Clarkson University (essaying the role Shiva once expected from IIT Delhi) – started working together. “ The luge I had for the last season, is the first real Indian design luge,’’ Shiva said. But his struggles are not over. He would like to retain Duncan as his coach. That requires getting a good sponsor. In all these years Shiva hasn’t enjoyed a good, reliable long term sponsorship contract with any Indian company. “ I get short term support. What I want is meaningful, long term support,’’ he said. As for sports bodies in India, he said clearly, “ in almost 20 years of competing, I haven’t got any monetary support from the domestic sports associations.’’ He received help from overseas bodies. The International Olympic Committee, for example, provided Shiva IOC Solidarity Scholarships and helped him get started in the sport. But the funds crunch can be quite impactful; over 2006-2008 it was so bad that Shiva wondered whether he would be able to continue. In that phase he married Namita who had studied management; she became his sports manager. Shiva also credits renowned shooter and Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra for helping him continue in luge. What amazes in this hunt for resources in an India loving its story of corporate success, is that Shiva’s annual budget is a mere one crore rupees (approx $ 150,000 at the exchange rate of one dollar = 66.84 rupees; March 27, 2016). The day after I met him, he had a sponsorship deal being finalized. “ If I get two more deals of the same sort, I am set for this year,’’ he said. He also had a couple of crowd funding campaigns going on.

It had been a long time chatting.

A few quick photos and I watched father and son rush off to catch their flight to Delhi.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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