The race is over and the hype is dead. India’s only Winter Olympic participant in luge, Shiva Keshavan, is past that time of the year when plodding articles that trace his roots and arduous journey get published by the truckloads.
“Since the final race (at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea on 11 February), I have not had a minute free. The next few days were intense with the media and I also spent some time with the supporters who had come. I am feeling a little more relaxed now," he says.
His snowy expedition, one that lasted for two decades, is about to take a hairpin turn. His recent meeting with Rajeev Mehta, secretary-general, Indian Olympic Association (IOA), was an important first step that laid down a marker.
“The idea is to use this momentum to try and push for a long-term development plan for luge and winter sports in India. I said I’d like to contribute but I want a long-term commitment from them, it cannot be a one-off thing," says Keshavan, 36. In 2017, the Indian Olympic Association suspended the Winter Games Federation of India owing to discrepancies while conducting elections. Currently, there is not a single federation that is recognized by the sports ministry.
On 12 March, the IOA appointed a five-member ad-hoc committee to restructure the defunct federation. Keshavan is part of this team that also includes secretary-general of the Winter Games Federation, Roshan Lal Thakur; director-general of military training, Lt General Harpal Singh; IAS officer Rakesh Sharma; and the CEO of the Handball Federation of India, S.M. Bali.
“There is an opportunity for the associations to get their act together, there has to be some kind of structure, a yearly plan. My programme should be accepted by the Indian Luge Federation because they are the ones who will ensure athletes are competing internationally," he explains.
At the crux of this proposal lies his vision of conducting training camps for luge aspirants in the age group of 10-14 in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. He hopes to work alongside public schools in these regions.
Now officially retired, this is not the first time Keshavan has flirted with such scouting programmes. “I had held various camps in Himachal as an athlete and we managed to get them trained internationally but it wasn’t a sustained programme, it didn’t have any long-term funding."
Familiar with the dormant winter sports ecosystem in India, his vision is far clearer now. Keshavan wants to build and train two beginner teams of eight junior athletes each (four girls and four boys), preparing them for two disciplines—artificial tracks and natural tracks.
By September, Keshavan plans to hold camps and begin training.
Between all of his commitments, having finally hung his sled after participating in a record six Winter Games over 20 years, he’s had some time to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly.
When he began competitively racing in Winter Olympics (1998, Japan), there was no recognized luge organization and no coaches. Keshavan was his own manager, responsible for booking his flight tickets and hotels prior to a competition.
He can’t help but chuckle before getting serious. “The worst time was in 2006- 2008. For two years, I didn’t have any means of going to training or competing in any international races. It seemed like I would have to quit the sport. Those were really tough times."
Keshavan clocked 48.900 seconds in his final race, placing him 30th in the heat among 40 competitors. He was ruled out from taking part in the fourth run which decides the medals.
But as soon as he crossed the finish line, he broke into a wide smile, raising his sled and waving to his family members and well-wishers. “It’s difficult emotionally to let go of the sport," he says.
Keshavan has a two-year-old daughter, Arianna-Omna, but admits he will not push her towards winter sport, maintaining that he only wants her to live an active lifestyle in which sport plays a part.
But he isn’t even close to detaching himself from luge. Retirement has enabled him to look at the bigger picture and Keshavan sounds intent on bringing about a positive change for winter sports in India.
“If an athlete goes to the next Olympics, I might go as a coach or a mentor," he says.“I am not going to wait for anybody else to do it or for things to happen automatically. We have to create the future ourselves."