Shiva Keshavan is no stranger to walking alone. Twenty-two years back, when he swirled around in his sled in the artificial tracks of Nagano, his first Olympics, he set in motion an arduous journey of success, submission, and solitude that made him the flagbearer of winter sports in India.
Five more appearances at the Olympics followed, interspersed with medals at various international and continental events. Nothing, though, could get the mandarins of Indian sports to recognise his journey. Funding never arrived, he could afford no coaches, physios, or psychologists, and he had to max out his credit cards to make travel arrangements. Shiva carried on though, living on the literal and metaphorical thin ice, taking the Indian flag to the little-known icy wilderness.
The appointment as India's chief luge coach as well as the High-Performance Director of the national team thus comes as some sort of redemption for the 38-year-old.
"It is good to get this official recognition. As an athlete, I always missed an organised structure. There were no long-term plans or systems in place. High-performance sport has to be system-led, and that is why I want to create a system for luge, and hopefully, we'll gradually take it to all winter sports. Now that I have been given the charge officially, I guess things will start moving," Shiva told Firstpost from Wayanad in Kerala.
Shiva's scope of work, besides coaching, includes talent scouting, infrastructure planning, and taking care of the training needs of the athletes. As India's sole luge exponent, he has been doing some of that work unofficially over the years, and the chance to get things done through an organised system is a pleasant first for him.
"Coming on board officially is a big thing. I hope this will pave the way for due process to be set up. Having a full-time coach is a good start, but there's a lot to be done. I am currently in the process of preparing a long-term development plan," he said.
Shiva's tenure will be decided by the Luge Federation of India on the basis of the plan he submits, but he is looking at an initial stint of no less than five years.
"I am making a four and an eight-year plan. Usually, we plan from Olympics to Olympics but considering there are no other luge experts in the country, I am looking at a minimum of a five-year term, to begin with," he added.
Among Shiva's immediate tasks is to prepare two athletes - who he doesn't wish to be quoted - for the Beijing Games in 2022. The more realistic target, though, is the 2026 Olympics for which he wants to groom the athletes straightway. As things stand today, he doesn't have a large pool of players to work with, considering most winter athletes in India quit the sport in a couple of seasons, given the lack of opportunities. Luge, specifically, had no one other than Shiva for 20 years starting 1998.
"Technically and physically, Luge is quite a complex sport. So, the learning curve is bigger than other winter sports. This means that we need players to stick around. In terms of a core group of players, no, we do not have anyone fit for competing internationally. Winter athletes in India come and go, no one really stays. My challenge is to take the sport to the people.
"I am particularly keen on broadening the base of athletes. We will look to make teams in the seniors and juniors in both artificial and natural track luge. I am quite excited about working with juniors who I can train for the 2026 Games," Shiva said, discussing his plans for the sport in India.
Currently, Winter Olympics has four luge events in their programme - Men's Singles, Women's Singles, Mixed Doubles, and Mixed Team Relay - and there are chances of Women's Doubles making the cut in near future. Shiva sees an opportunity there.
"With Women's Doubles likely to make it to the Olympics soon, we'll have a new event to try and target, which is great. Not many countries have athletes in that discipline, and if we start early, we can reap the benefits," he said.
To achieve that, Shiva wants to pursue the US model of talent scouting, which is to fill a truck with all the necessary equipment and drive around schools, villages, and towns, conducting camps and workshops and getting children to participate.
"That is real scouting. I wish to do that, and not set up a camp somewhere and expect the talent to come to me. I have seen the best practices in countries like the USA, Austria, and Germany, and I am quite excited to implement the US model here.
"We are also planning to get roller sleds so that we can go place to place and do initiation for the sport through schools and village panchayats. I have been doing it in my years as an active athlete too, so we'll look to continue it. Once we get people initiated on roller luge, I'll be able to identify the probable candidates who can take up ice sport. Then, we will look to send them abroad for proper training.
"At the same time, another important thing for me to recommend is setting up proper infrastructure to ensure high-level training within the country. There are certain winter sports training centres being considered by the government and we'll be hoping to include luge there as well. We'll also look at the development of natural tracks. These are very easy to develop and do not need much investment. This is basically making the best of our natural resources," he explained.
Another immediate task at hand is to facilitate international travel for athletes for training and competitions this year. While the global sports schedule has been thrown off gear due to the coronavirus pandemic, the luge calendar, as of now, is likely to proceed as planned, and Shiva wants to make use of the first available opportunity.
The 2020-21 luge season for juniors and seniors is set to commence in November, with the natural track Luge World Cup slated from 11-13 December. Then, the track homologation for 2022 Beijing Games will happen this winters, giving an opportunity for athletes to test the tracks.
"Recently, I got a mail from the international federation confirming that the international season is going ahead as planned. They will put up certain SOPs in place to ensure safety for everyone. We will be considering all the opportunities, depending on the funding, of course."
That last bit has been the proverbial thorn in Shiva's flesh all his sporting life. The national federation is not recognised by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, which means luge - and all winter sports - are not eligible for any funds from the government.
"I still have to wrap my head around it completely," admits Shiva. "There is not a single winter sports federation that is recognised by the Ministry. Once we get the government's recognition, funding can be taken care of by SAI, but till such time, we have to look for various sources of funding. That is what I need to get into and it is quite a challenge."
Having borne the brunt of India's infamous officialdom throughout his career, life has completed a circle of sorts for Shiva, giving him an enviable chance to correct the historical wrongs and bolster an already enduring legacy.
With no fixed tenure, no office space, no staff, and no infrastructure, he has a clean, even if scratchy, slate to begin, but then, walking alone has never been a problem for him.
"We are not even at the starting line. There's a long way to go, but it'll be fun," he signs off.