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Blade runner

It’s not easy Luge? You may never have heard of it but one Indian has been representing the nation in the sport, hurtling down ice tracks at lightning speeds.

health and fitness Updated: Feb 13, 2010 13:50 IST
HT Correspondent

Hurtling down hard, packed ice at speeds over 150 km per hour, Shiva Keshavan needs his mind and limbs to be in perfect sync to negotiate the one track that looms between him and Olympic glory. With a vertical drop of 152 m, the Whistler Sliding Center in Vancouver offers the fastest luge plummet in the world. It hurtles competitors into 16 corners at high speed, relying merely on the razor thin blades of a sled for traction.

To compound things further, there are no brakes to slow down as the world turns into a white blur and the ice races past just inches from your face. There can be no “Uh, oh, let me step off the gas here a bit” moments. Once in the embrace of the icy track, Keshavan can only stop after 1,347 metres of sliding fall and things can go wrong pretty soon. Like they did for the man from the Himachal village of Vashisht, when he was practising at the same venue in October last year.

He went off his sled at 140 kph; even as the sled was crushed into a mangled heap, Keshavan escaped with a hairline fracture in his thumb. Luge, clearly, is not for babes.

It’s in the mind

It takes guts to go out there and try to shave off the milliseconds, especially after suffering falls that have fractured his spine, limbs, and other assorted bones that he would rather not remember. “As long as the head stays firm, the rest can heal,” laughs the four-time Winter Olympian from India.

To keep that head straight and focused, Keshavan has his own mantra. “The Himalayas give me my strength. Having lived amongst them since birth, I have a spiritual connect with the high mountains. The day I lose my nerve running down a crumbling trail or traversing the high glaciers on treks, I will begin to consider getting jitters on the track. Luge is dangerous but for us mountain-bred, life is hardly easy anyway. Then, I know that Shiva will look after me. After all he’s my namesake,” says the genial 29-year-old.

Keshavan’s head is also contained by the mental discipline that is induced by practicing yoga and Kalaripayattu, the martial art from Kerala. “These ancient Indian arts are perfect to complement the hard physical training programme and have helped me maintain flexibility and develop a good sense of balance. But the biggest benefit is the mental training.”

It also needs big muscles

Man and sled become one speeding blur out on the luge track. G-forces of up to 7Gs slam into the sleds on the curves, multiplying the total weight by seven. Keshavan weighs 85kg and the sled and other equipment add up to another 25 kg; controlling the momentum that kind of weight builds up requires both bulk and reflex in equal doses.

“Simply put, luge demands explosive power at the start to built the momentum that will dictate the pace for the rest of the run. After that it demands quick reflexes for navigating the corners. Muscle resistance and elasticity are required to cope with the extreme conditions on the track such as the high speed and the G-force. Power training is important so you can use your body-weight to manoeuvre and build greater momentum,” he says.

Theirs hands tucked closed to their body, the pilots use subtle shifts of bodyweight that alter the amount of pressure on the runners under the sled to control the hurtling missile. The neck has to be as flat as possible to reduce wind drag, while darting glances are important to navigate and work out precise entry and exit points into turns.

It’s about heart

Keshavan does not have access to the Porsche technology the Germans use to streamline their sleds. Neither does he have access to the sort of sport medicine centres that the majority of European nations have. And it’s not always feasible to tap into the coaching prowess of the Italians (especially after he turned down their offer to come on board as an Italian citizen for the Turin Games in 2006). But the one thing he can always count on is his own inner strength.

“Modern sport is highly competitive at the international level and guidance is required every step of the way. Equipment and technical aspects are becoming more and more important and often these can make the crucial difference between the winner and the runner up. But then, I firmly believe that you can make anything possible if you believe in yourself and never give in,” he says.

Not for Keshavan the elaborate food plans drawn up by nutritionists. “I pay great attention to my food habits and eat a balanced diet based on the requirements of my training and exercise, and have never felt the need for any artificial integrators or supplements.”

He also believes that as long as he eats healthy and sticks to the mountains, all will be well. “There is something in the air and water of my native Himalayas. I am at half my energy level when I have to descend to the plains,” he laughs. And adds: “The mountains prepare you to be hardy and they give me the courage to keep going.”

For Keshavan it’s not just about competing but also about competing true: “It is important to keep away from substances that artificially enhance an athletes performance. Only if there are athletes who play true, understanding the deeper meaning of sport, will the Olympic spirit remain alive.”