Hopefully this year Phunsukh Wangdu (Aamir Khan’s character in 3 Idiots) will not be the only Ladakhi to leave a mark on the collective Indian consciousness. Two other Ladakhis, both skiers, hope to make their countrymen proud when they represent the nation at the 21st Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, starting 12 February.
Havaldar Jamyang Namgial, 25, and havaldar Tashi Lundup, 26, both members of the Indian Army’s Ladakh Scouts regiment, will be the first from their region to take part in any Olympic event. “I love the fact that this sport has allowed me to travel to so many countries which most people from Ladakh cannot imagine visiting,” says Namgial. The duo, who have just returned from Italy after two months of training, are seemingly excited, but it is tough to gauge how they really feel. They are both men of few words. The only time their faces really light up is when they open their 6ft-long black-and-grey ski bags to show off the new skis funded by the Winter Games Federation of India.
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Lundup now has four pairs, including a shiny new neon-green, slim pair (about an inch and a half in width) with poles that are more than 5ft long. Namgial’s new pair is broader at the ends, about 4ft long, and his ski poles are under 3ft. With this red and white pair of skis, his tally is a total of three pairs.
A bumpy ride
In comparison, 28-year-old Keshavan is a livewire.
Keshavan, who will represent India in luge for the fourth consecutive time in the Olympics, talks non-stop. Even as he is getting out of his cherry red WagonR car, lugging his shiny blue sled, putting on stud-encrusted gloves and white ski boots that look straight out of a sci-fi movie and struggling into a self-designed tricolour ski-suit which has the word “Bharat” misspelt in Hindi. Even as he gets ready for a photo shoot at the Nehru Park in New Delhi, Keshavan is talking enthusiastically.
In luge, as Keshavan explains, the athlete has to lie on his back on a sled (a pod on two steel blades), which is about 45cm wide, and then go down an artificially refrigerated track, feet first. As he rockets down, trying to reach the finish point in the shortest possible time, the athlete has to steer the curves of the ice track using his body weight, feet and sled handles.
The preceding year has been the best for Keshavan’s sporting career in more than a decade and he is understandably excited. Besides finding a sponsor in Swiss International Air Lines (which takes care of his travel requirements for events), Limca Book of Records (which is funding his equipment) and Reebok (which is funding his gear), he has received a positive response from the Union sports ministry. “There is really one guy to thank for all this—Abhinav Bindra. His winning the Olympic medal at Beijing has changed so many things for sportsmen like me in this country,” says Keshavan, who missed meeting Bindra in Munich, Germany, last year when they were training there. He keeps in touch with the Olympic gold medallist on Facebook though.
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Keshavan and his partner/manager/fiancee Namita Agarwal spent the better part of 2008 cold-calling over 100 companies to see if they could find sponsors. “We tried watch companies, sports goods manufacturers, cola giants. I used to get numbers off the Internet and then call the office for appointments. It was during one of these calls that the Swiss International Air Lines deal come through, not in terms of hard cash, but in a deal that allows Shiva to travel more frequently for events,” says Agarwal.
Cool quotient: Skiers Jamyang Namgial (left) and Tashi Lundup too are confident after training in Austria, Australia and Italy. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Col. S.C. Narang, director, Winter Sports Federation of India, says they have spent around Rs12 lakh each on Lundup and Namgial’s training, equipment and travel arrangements in the last year. “We had approached many companies in 2008 to help us with sponsorships, but nobody came forward,” he claims.
Last year, for the first time, the sports ministry agreed to help Keshavan with funds (around Rs10 lakh) for his travel, stay, training, and to pay his coach Yann Frichteau’s fees (€2,000 per month from October 2009 to February 2010). The ministry even ordered a new sled to be made to his specifications—it will not be ready in time for the Olympics, however.
Agarwal has never seen Keshavan in competition on a luge track, just as Namgial and Lundup’s families in Ladakh still don’t quite understand what their boys do with long poles in the snow. “I hurt myself badly when I started learning the sport initially but I never told my family about it,” says Namgial.
Keshavan, who holds the world record for being the youngest Olympian to qualify for luge, is also probably the only one to have competed in the Olympics with borrowed equipment. In his first stint in the Winter Olympics at Nagano, Japan, in 1998, the then 16-year-old Keshavan participated on a sled that the Korean team was kind enough to lend him.
He finished in the top 30, creditable considering India did not even send official papers recognizing him as a participant and he was almost denied entry into the Games Village. Despite it all, this resident of a small village in Himachal Pradesh, who’d been exposed to luge just two years earlier, managed to stay one position ahead of the Koreans who had lent him the sled.
“I had no clue what luge was when I signed up for a camp in 1995-96 held by an Austrian talent scout Gunter Lemmerer. He had been sent by an international luge federation to seek luge pilots in countries other than the Alpine ones. It meant taking a week off school. Besides, I was the junior ski champion, so I assumed the camp was associated with skiing,” says Keshavan, who spent his early years in Vashisht, a village in Himachal Pradesh where his Italian mother runs an eatery and Malayali father an adventure sports company. He was later packed off to The Lawrence School, Sanawar.
At the camp, he was among the 30 participants who were shown a film so that they could understand what luge, bobsleighing and other winter sports were about. Lemmerer then made them try out luge on sleds that had rollerblades. “I rolled down a road instead of an ice track. It was very cool,” says Keshavan, who had learnt skiing on handmade wooden skis.
Ski is the limit
Lundup and Namgial learnt about their respective sports courtesy a film too. “I was interested in ice hockey and had seen the members of the elite Ladakh Scouts play games. I wanted to be like them and that’s why I signed up for the army in 2001 when I was 16,” says Namgial, who is from Saboo village in Ladakh. His dreams of playing ice hockey went into cold storage when he saw an exhibition match between the Ladakh team and a team from Canada. “The Canadians, they just did not bother about the puck. They just went for the players only. The game did not look so exciting after that.”
Namgial, along with Lundup, was among the seven Ladakh Scouts selected after trials for the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) in Gulmarg, Kashmir. It was there in 2002 that the boys were introduced to skiing.
Ask the two why Lundup, a native of Achinathang village in Ladakh, was selected for cross-country skiing and Namgial for Alpine skiing, and the answer is simple: “I could run long distances in the snow faster than anyone else without getting breathless and he could run up and down a slope best,” explains Lundup. Namgial believes that he was selected for the giant slalom (which involves skiing between sets of poles, or “gates”, placed at a distance from each other) because he was the only one in his group who was not scared to run down a slope fast.
In cross-country skiing (freestyle), participants propel themselves across snow-covered terrain using narrow skis and long poles. Lundup will be participating in the 15km event at the Olympics. “You should have a good sense of balance. And no smoking and drinking allowed if you want to pursue the sport,” he adds. Namgial will compete in giant slalom.
Shiva Keshavan feels he is better prepared for the Winter Olympics because he has managed to get in enough practice by participating in 15 luge events. Johannes Simonc / AFP
After being assigned their respective sports, both had to follow rigorous training schedules set by Subedar Karma Samstan, a revered figure at HAWS. “He is a legend in Ladakh Scouts. He has trained us in sports we knew nothing about,” says Namgial. He whips out a laptop and shows us a video of himself scurrying down a slope in Italy, pausing it at one place and pointing to the way his body bends in an S-shape. “Before going to Italy, I never knew that my head and shoulders should not be on the same side when I hit the gate,” he says. “That used to slow me down. Now I keep my head away from my shoulders.”
Keshavan too has been working with coach Frichteau, an ex-luge champion, to improve his timing. “There are four things that mainly matter in luge. The athlete’s physical power helps in the initial thrust that will carry the luge pilot down the track, a skilled piloting ability to manoeuvre the course; your equipment; and how well you know the track you are on.” The last two attributes help a luge pilot get an edge over competitors, says Keshavan—as does a slightly heavier body. “The more you weigh, greater is the momentum you gather as you hurl down the track,” he says.
The sled he will use in the Olympics is a second-hand one, bought in December from the Austrian team. “The good thing is that I have finally retired my decade-old sled, which has seen two Olympics. Since my special sled will be ready only after the Olympics, I will have to modify the runners (steel blades on which the pod sits) of my current sled to suit the Vancouver track,” says Keshavan.
He works on these modifications himself, unlike other luge pilots who have teams of assistants akin to Formula 1 teams. But Keshavan is positive that he will be able to improve over his last Olympics ranking of 25 at Torino and hopes to be in the top 17.
“Most luge athletes peak at 32 or 33 years. I have time on my side, and hopefully in the 2014 Olympics I will bring home a medal too,” he adds. “Luge is a sport where experience counts—it helps if your body is used to absorbing bumps and you have learnt to keep your mind relaxed at all stages.”
To build strength, Keshavan trains in yoga and Kalaripayattu (a form of martial arts from Kerala) during the summer months when he is in India. He also works on running his firm LINK Overseas Consulting (which helps Italian firms set up businesses in India) with Agarwal.
“I want to work to develop winter sports in India and that’s why I set up camps for children in Manali, such as the one I did in December with Indian Amateur Luge Association (Iala),” says Keshavan. Fifty boys and girls were selected and trained in luge the same way Lemmerer had done 15 years ago—on sleds with rollerblades—and taught to slide down a road. “We selected 10 children—six boys and four girls—out of these and then took them for advanced training in the sport at Nagano, Japan,” he adds. “By the 2014 Winter Olympics, I hope to see a few more luge pilots participating from India alongside me.”
India at the Winter Olympics
This will be the eighth time the country will take part in the Games
Innsbruck, Austria, 1964
Jeremy Bujakowski in Alpine skiing
Grenoble, France, 1968
Jeremy Bujakowski in Alpine skiing
Calgary, Canada, 1988
Shailaja Kumar, Gul Dev and Kishor Rai in Alpine skiing
Albertville, France, 1992
Nanak Chand and Lal Chuni in Alpine skiing
Nagano, Japan, 1998
Shiva Keshavan in luge
Salt Lake City, US, 2002
Shiva Keshavan in luge
Torino, Italy, 2006
Neha Ahuja in Alpine skiing; Bahadur Gurung Gupta in cross-country skiing; Shiva Keshavan in luge; and Lal Chuni in Alpine skiing