Shiva Keshavan: India’s "Winter Lion"
The latest edition of the Winter Olympics brought some interesting storylines to the surface. Primary amongst these were stories painted with politics as a distinct backdrop, as the town of Pyeongchang was not just the centre of the Sporting world but also the hotbed for International Diplomacy.
One could say, that despite a nervous start, Korean officials - on both sides of the 38th parallel - came out with their reputations saved from a close shave with a disaster in waiting.
A memory to last for a lifetime for those who watched the Games would’ve been a single team floated by the two halves of Korea for the Ice-Hockey matches or Chloe Kim’s stunning performance in Women’s Snowboarding.
So at one of the most talked about global events, where did we, as the second most populated nation feature? How did we fare? How did the world see us? Did the world see us?
The answer to all the above is the distinct but fading roar of India's only Winter Lion, Shiva Keshavan.
When it comes to competitive Winter Sports, Keshavan isn’t just in a league of his own, he is the league itself.
The privilege or burden, begs a point of view, has rested squarely on this Kerala born Olympian.
In his sixth Winter Games, Keshavan did what he has been doing since 1998 when he competed in his first Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
Back then, he was only 16 - the youngest Luge Olympian in history and competing in his first Olympics without a coach or even a proper sled.
And to give all of us a perspective, the sled is to the sport of luge, what skates are to roller skating..
Keshavan grew up in Himachal Pradesh and a cursory glance into the distance every morning would've exposed a site revered by many, the sight of the mighty Himalayas.
Perhaps, in such surroundings, it is no surprise that Keshavan has always had his heart set on Winter Sports coupled with an extreme love for speed and adventure.
To give you a fair idea of what this Lion is made of, type and search "Shiva Keshavan" on YouTube and one of the first videos will show him on a sled, speeding down a highway with cars, goats, snow and probably time, all flying past.
When you don’t have the best facilities to train, improvisation is the name of the game and Keshavan finished this chapter of life very early on.
With skill, landscape, passion and hard work being on his side, all that an athlete of his merit needed was a break. That one chance to set his sled off the highest peak.
For Shiva, this break was Günther Lemmerer. The Austrian was scouting for the International Luge Federation and happened to chance upon Keshavan’s capabilities on a homemade DIY sled.
It was love at first sight as the main purpose of Lemmerer's exercise was scouting to find athletes from across the globe and help them gain tools to train and exposure to events, thereby giving the sport an Internationalist feel, and help break free from its reliance on talent from Europe.
Having been selected by Lemmerer, Keshavan got a chance to train in Austria where motivation and inspiration - in equal parts - came from a screening of Cool Runnings - a Disney backed movie charting the story of a Jamaican bobsled team.
He made the most of this "break" and trained under the watchful eye of professionals ultimately making it to the Nagano games.
One story that stands out in Shiva's career exposes his deep-rooted love for his country and an unshakable belief that his performances can catalyse a nation into taking Winter Sports seriously.
As Keshavan was beginning to be recognized for his talents on the sled, the Italian Luge team offered him unfettered use of their facilities and even a job as a policeman, the only condition being he would race for the Italian National Team - (twist in plot)- Keshavan's mother is Italian.
For most mere mortals this would've been the most natural and easy choice to make; the chance to finally accomplish the zenith in your sport.
But he was undeterring in his decision to continue to compete for India; his ultimate dream being- bringing the Winter Games to his beloved India.
Whilst winning an Olympic medal is the pinnacle of any Sport today, Shiva isn't short of champagne popping moments, as his record in his own continent is to swear by.
Prior to Pyeongchang, Shiva was not only the defending luge Asian Champion but was the proud owner of 10 Asia Cup Medals.
Keshavan's single track dedication to his Sport and his relentless drive to keep competing against incredible odds is a testament to the power of mind over matter.
But if we were to put things into perspective, only the great Leander Paes has taken part in more Olympic editions than Shiva but unlike the Tennis giant, Keshavan has often done it from a lonely mountaintop. Cold, dark and stark lonely.
But if you ask him, there won’t be a hint of critique in his voice nor deep regret. He will add repeatedly how the support he has gotten - including at these Games in Korea - has made competing in subzero temperatures a privilege, and yet, somehow we are letting the Shiva Keshavan’s of the world down.
Recognition of his feats, acknowledgment of the difficulty and support from the larger public may have come a little too late in his career.
But here’s our chance, as a country, to get behind athletes like Shiva and support his newest challenge - to broaden the accessibility of Winter Sports in India.
In riding off into the sunset, the hope is that Keshavan’s next chapter will represent a new dawn for Winter sports in the country.
(The author is Country Head – Commercial Banking and in-charge of Sports Vertical, IndusInd Bank)