From flag-bearer at Winter Olympics to 'torchbearer' of luge: Shiva Keshavan's relentless journey
“Now, there is no denying that I feel like a veteran,” says Shiva Keshavan. “Sixth Olympics, there’s nobody else, at least in our sports who’s done that,” he adds with just the slightest hint of pride.
Just over a week before he gets on his sled in PyeongChang for his sixth Olympics – the joint-highest for India, on par with tennis legend Leander Paes – Keshavan explains how he will be looking to make memories in what will probably be his last edition.
“It’s probably going to be my last Olympics. And so I want to make sure I make some good memories, soak in the atmosphere and just be present and live it as an experience. That’s what my idea is,” he says.
There is no hint of trepidation in his eyes, not a trace of bitterness in his voice. After all, he has been at it long enough to know that chances of him winning a medal are slim. But then again it's not always about the medal, it's about the small victories along the way.
Despite a hairline fracture on his hand, Keshavan is willing to take the gamble
Keshavan concedes that although there were no stones left unturned with respect to his preparation, it’s going to be tough, especially after the fresh injury he sustained just a couple of weeks back. Injuries, in any sport, set you back - more so when you sustain them just a few days before the biggest of events.
“The preparation has been good. I have had a long season, lot of training, lot of time to set up the equipment we wanted. We had a few hiccups during the winter with the equipment but it’s good that they happened early on. Now, there will hopefully be no more surprises,” Keshavan says as he sips on his tea.
“I had a pretty bad crash a couple of weeks back. I picked up a few hairline fractures on my hand. I’m still recovering from it, trying to regain full strength in my hand…this last week, I’m undergoing some physiotherapy, trying to make it work. It’s a gamble, it’ll be on the limit. We’ll see how this goes, but you know, it’s just one event so I hope I can pull through,” he continues.
Are foreign countries the best place to train for winter sports athletes?
You cannot help but wonder what the actual state of infrastructure in India is, given the fact that only two from the country have qualified for this year’s Games. Contrary to popular belief, though, Keshavan doesn’t think that India is a bad place to train.
“It doesn’t matter where you practise a sport. The thing is, now sports has gotten more advanced throughout the world with the technology coming in and a lot of advanced infrastructures. Winter sports is very sensitive to climate, but now people can make artificial snow. There’s nothing chemical about artificial snow, it’s just frozen water. There’s nothing bad in it…instead, it gives a way to have a track prepared for a long period of time.
“We have mountains over here, which are arguably the best in the world. Yes, that doesn’t mean it will have a proper sports infrastructure…you still have to prepare it. You have to plot a course, you have to maintain it, you have to have a ski lift so you can go up and down many times a day.
“That’s what is lacking over here. Actually, we are not using our resources to the best. If we do, there’s no reason why we will have to go anywhere else in the world to train.
“What is needed is that the administration of this thing has to be done properly. Frankly, not much has been done on that end,” the 36-year-old states.
The journey from a 16-year-old Olympian to a veteran of six Olympics
It was in 1998 when Keshavan qualified for his first Olympics. At that time, he was young and fearless, but of course there was no financial backing. He recounts his experience in Nagano:
“1998 was my first Olympics, I didn’t know what to expect. I was 15-16 years of age, 20 years back, for me just reaching the Olympics was a dream come true. It was the ultimate goal that I could think of at that time. And, so just being there, I felt that I had already arrived.
“Of course, being so young, I still wasn’t thinking of things like pressure, performance… I just went and did what I had to. It was a very good experience that I had.”
However, when he grew older and started thinking more about it, the pressure started mounting.
“I think that’s the advantage of being young as well. When you are younger you can even take certain risks without worrying about the physical consequences. When you are older, you have to be a little more careful, do a bit of more warm up, you have to prepare accordingly. So in each phase of your career, you have to make use of the best tools that are available to you,” Keshavan opines.
Talking about how he managed to deal with the pressure that came after his first Olympics, Keshavan says he took it one step at a time, setting small targets for himself instead of thinking too far into the future.
“When I qualified for the first time, I had achieved my ultimate goal, at that time. Once I did it, for a moment, I was basking in that excitement but after it got over, I thought what now? And then I realised that I have to start fixing targets… small, small goals that seemed doable.
“From there, reaching the podium became my target, at least at the Asian level. It took quite a few years, but eventually, I achieved that. But overall in the world, the winner was still far ahead and so my targets kept getting more and more difficult. Now, I’m at a point where I’m just 0.6 seconds behind the best,” he says.
“The sport also has changed a lot. It has become more competitive. 20 years back, if I was just 0.6 seconds behind the best, I would have been in the top 5. But now, there are many, many more athletes packed into that 0.6 seconds.”
From being an inexperienced 16-year-old taking part in his first Olympics in 1998 to becoming a veteran of five Olympics, and now on the way to his sixth, it has been some journey for Keshavan.
A landmark moment for winter sports in India
Recently, Keshavan became the first winter sports athlete to officially be given funding. It was a sum no less than Rs. 20 lakh from the Sports Ministry - under the Target Olympic Podium scheme. Keshavan feels that that was a landmark moment for winter sports in India.
He says, “My part is a just small part of a much bigger journey. If we talk about winter sports in India, this is a landmark that for the first time an athlete has been selected in the TOPS. That shows that the government is finally opening up to things like this whereas the first year when I went there, I had to explain to people what is Winter Olympics from the scratch... they didn’t know what it was, they had no idea.
“All this process, it took a long time. Now, at least everybody in the sports administration knows what luge is and what winter sports are. And so we can move forward from here. But there’s still a long way to go.”
The way ahead? Keshavan feels that the next obvious step would be to set up a long-term program.
“The funding has come in just before the Winter Olympics. But you know, we’ve got to get into a phase where four years, eight years before the Olympics, we’re setting up a long-term program. The minister, being an Olympics medallist himself, knows this very well and he is trying to bring change, one step at a time,” he says, almost as though he is trying to convince himself.
A lesson on how to motivate yourself in dire circumstances
In a recent interview with Sportskeeda, speedskater Stephen Paul said that to begin preparing for an Olympics, you have to invest four years of your life and that without proper backing, it becomes difficult. In fact, for Stephen, things have hardened to such an extent that he is even considering retirement at the age of 25.
Keshavan, himself, had gone through such situations in his long career. On being asked how he motivates himself in such circumstances, he says that it is the sports’ future in the country that drove him.
“People like Stephen and Vishwaraj, they are pioneers in ice-skating… their contribution, whether they realise it or not, is going to have an effect on the future generations. The more they push, the more they will make life easier for the future generation. That’s what motivates you,” he says.
“At the same time, you can't hold a grudge against somebody. The important thing is making a living, building a future for yourself and for your family, things like that. But it is perfectly justifiable if someone considers whether he or she wants to continue down a path. I think Stephen went really, really close to qualifying for the Olympics, and I’m pretty sure he’ll be able to do it the next time.”
Looking ahead at the future
Speaking about what needs to be done next in order to groom more athletes capable of competing at the topmost level, Keshavan concedes that if more and more former athletes get into administration, it might really help the cause.
“What needs to happen now is that more athletes need to get into administration. If people, who don’t know what it takes, are in the administration, then it becomes very difficult. It can be very frustrating when someone who has never put on skates is the President of the Ice-skating federation and they decide the future of the ice-skaters,” he says.
He promises that he himself will get more involved in the administration. “For some time now, I have been trying to get involved in the sports' administration. I have formed this association of Olympians, the Indian Olympian Association, which is a body exclusively made up of Olympians who want to contribute to the society, to sports, even after finishing his or her career.”
Keshavan’s eyes sparkle with a glimmer of hope and determination as he says, “I think if more Olympians get into administration, like (Rajyavardhan Singh) Rathore has, we can have a better future. It’s still a long process. When I started, I thought we would make progress a lot faster but we didn’t. Of course, in the larger scheme of things, it’s going in a direction. Hopefully, it continues.
“It’s going to be tough, because one needs to try, consistently. For instance, Stephen and Vishwaraj have been moving forward in the right direction and they are starting to get competitive and they can be the torchbearers if they understand that they have a good chance of achieving their goals.
"Apart from that, I hope that in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, we will start to see some juniors on whom we can place long-term bets.”
As the interview comes to an end, and as he offers me some dry fruits, I can’t help but ask him how his Twitter handle came to be called @100thofasec.
“One day, this thing suddenly came up and my name was already taken by someone on Twitter so I couldn’t use it. And, since I’m talking about fractions of second so many times, someone suggested 100th of a second, and I thought it sounded good,” he says with a wide smile on his face.