Firstpost Masterclass: Luge legend Shiva Keshavan deconstructs the science, technique, and mindset behind his art

What is luge and what challenges does it entail? How does one slide on ice at 150 kmph and battle G forces at the same time? How to excel in a sport that is measured to one-thousandth of a second? India's lone luge exponent Shiva Keshavan breaks down his sport in this edition of Firstpost Masterclass

Shantanu Srivastava June 08, 2020 08:45:36 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: Luge legend Shiva Keshavan deconstructs the science, technique, and mindset behind his art

Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

Growing up in the Himalayas, it was only ordained that ice and snow would be an intrinsic part of Shiva Keshavan's life. The fact that he ended up being India's premier winter athlete, thus, doesn't come as a great surprise. What is astonishing though is the bloody-mindedness with which Shiva chugged along in the face of ice-cold apathy and numbing ignorance. There would be days, as he would recall in this interview, when Shiva would struggle to put food on the table, but he kept going nevertheless. A six-time Winter Olympian, a now-retired Shiva explains the intricacies of his sport with rare scientific precision in this edition of Firstpost Masterclass.

Tell us about your early life? What kind of kid were you and where did you grow up?

I was born and brought up in a village called Vashisht in Himachal Pradesh, which is a few kilometres north of Manali. It is a very non-technological place. When I was born, there was no electricity or roads there. It is a place that used to get snowed during winters, so we had to prepare well in advance for those months. We used oil lamps, you know, really old school mountain life. Now, of course, we have tourism from all over the country and we have the internet and stuff. Back then it was a shepherd community. My parents were one of the first settlers there. They were adventure enthusiasts and their love for nature helped them settle there.

When and how did luge happen?

It was by accident. I was always into adventure and mountain sports. I was into skiing and sledding at a very young age. In fact, it is a bit of misconception that no one is interested in these sports in India. The kids who grow up in mountain areas are very passionate about mountain sports, and I was no different. But, we didn't have any competitive environment. I grew up among the first or second generation of winter athletes in India. We used to make our own equipment, make our own sled, make our own wooden skis...like it used to happen in 1920s Europe.

I started competing in the National Winter Games in skiing and won various competitions at the sub-junior level. When I was 13, my boarding school got an invitation to send athletes for a sledding camp. I was, by then, known as a skier so my school put forward my name. It was a very unique camp because it was held in a place that did not have any snow. We were introduced to modified sleds instead of the blades that we had used on ice, and they put wheels underneath so that we could ride on the roads. That was my first introduction to luge.

Later, the international federation of luge did their bit to help me understand the sport, and so did the movie Cool Runnings that became very popular in late '80s. That movie kind of spawned the whole new mindset in the international winter sports federation that they should look beyond the typical alpine countries for winter sports athletes. So their coach flew down to India and found me at this camp.

What were your initial days in sport like? Obviously you didn't have proper equipment and costume, so what was that struggle like?

Back then, it was not much about equipment. It was more about working on the basics as an athlete, learning the technicalities of the sport, what is the right position, what is the right way to manoeuvre, training the body to the optimum fitness and strength, and so on.

It was only after I had taken the maximum out of myself by working on the bases when I started looking for the finer things for improvement. I started to dig deeper and got more scientific about training techniques, biomechanics, the material, and the theory.

Our sport is the most precisely timed sport that exists. It is timed to one-thousandth of a second, and it has happened that people have won or lost by such fine margins. So you can't leave anything to chance. You have to look at anything and everything that gives you an edge. Technology became an important part when I decided I had to climb up the international rankings.

I realised my technique, fitness, preparation and form were comparable to other athletes, but they were still faster Of course, we didn't have a tradition of sport in India. I had to learn everything by observing others, be it technique or equipment. Then gradually, I met experts and they opened a whole new world to me that I hadn't even considered when I first started out in this sport.

Were there any specific moments in your early career that confirmed to you that this is the sport you want to pursue at a serious, international level?

When I started out, I did not think that far ahead. I was thinking about feeling good and enjoying myself. I knew the things that made me feel happy and alive. When this luge opportunity came up and I was selected at the talent scout camp that was held in Panchkula. I was still studying at Lawrence School in Kasauli, and I thought what am I going to do at this camp in Panchkula as there is no snow there. As it turned out, all they needed was a sloppy road and Panchkula had enough of those. I was selected and sent to Austria and Germany to train for some time and I got to live and breathe the competitive environment for the first time. That's when I realised that this is an opportunity that I won't let go easily. I then started my fight to claim my place.

What makes luge such a tough sport? Is it the precision of measurement, the risk factors, the aerodynamics, the body mechanics, or something else?

It is a combination of many factors. When you start out, you take giant steps forward in terms of timing. Once you reach the elite level, every step is incrementally harder to achieve. Luge puts extremely high importance on the mental aspect. Regardless of the resources you have, if you are not mentally sound or stable, you will not get the best out of yourself. Add to that, the risk and fear factor involved in the sport. If you're afraid, you are subconsciously holding yourself back. That's where mental strength comes back...it has enormous repercussions on the performance. You are going at 150kmph, touching 10Gs of G-force. The body obviously has certain natural self-preservation instincts, and you have to condition your body to react in a certain way.

That makes the sport unique. But that's not all. There is so much technology involved because of factors such as aerodynamics. Since most of our runs are over 100kmph, aerodynamics play an important part in our performance. Unlike what happens in a capsule or a car, here the body is exposed directly to the wind, so the materials you're using in bodysuit to the position your body is in become extremely important. We don't try to move our toes too much since they are the first point of contact with the wind, and since you are going feet first, the more you lift your head to see, the more wind resistance you're creating. So there's the balance of aerodynamics and safety there, which is something very unique to the sport.

Then, there's the entire component of the medium, which is the ice, and the co-efficient of friction that you are able to achieve by sliding down the ice. You're actually sliding on a micro layer of water which is formed between the ice and steel. So we get into things like high-performance steel. What kind of steel performs best in what temperature of ice; how do you treat the micro layers of steel so that you do not have too much of a layer of water that will not let you achieve top speed. So you see, there's so much science every year.

So many developments happen each year in terms of surface treatment, materials that you can add to your steel, and everything that can make the best use of the conditions, the hardness of the ice, and so on.

Is there a correct age to start in this sport because you need to get over the fear factor?

It's definitely an advantage to start very early to get comfortable in the sled. The comfort factor is a huge thing from where you can build on your technique. So in order to get comfortable, it is important for kids to have a natural foetus position to do these things, and this generally happens when you are starting early.

In my case, I learned to walk on ice early in my life and I didn't face the problem many other athletes coming from various other parts of the country faced. So that is definitely a big factor. In Europe, kids start very early, maybe at four years. They are in the sled at the age of two, so they don't have any mental blocks to overcome before learning the technique. It comes kind of naturally to them. Anybody who does a bit of mountaineering will understand this: When you are walking up the mountain, your weight should be towards the uphill side of the mountain, and it is the same when you are walking down. These kind of things have to become your second nature.

Let's talk about the equipment. What is it that you are looking for in a sled and can you break down the equipment for us?

There is no company in India that produces sleds, so you generally have to get them from somewhere else. There are, however, few companies that make certain components of a sled. So I get these components and assemble a sled on my own. Even internationally, the sleds that we get are not for artificial track luge, which is an Olympic sport, but of natural track luge and they obviously don't meet the high-performance requirements.

There are many components of a sled. The first consideration is comfort. The sled has to become an extension of your body. The fact that it has to moulded to your specifications is very important. Secondly, we have the body of the sled, which is called the pod, and then we have the bridges which are the main steering mechanism. Then we have runners and the blade. The pod has to be stiff enough to hold the aerodynamic shape that you want and at the same time, flexible enough to absorb some bumps on the track and transfer your body's movement on to the right, left, front, or back of the sled to ease the entrance and exit of the curve.

Earlier, sleds were made of fibreglass, but nowadays, various polymers and plastics, carbon fibre and a combination of materials are used to enhance flexibility and rigidity of the sled. Earlier we used to have hand-designed equipment, but now we have computer-generated models, based on which moulds are made to give more balance.

Then, you have bridges, that allow you to set up the angle at which your steel is right at the end, and also how parallel your steels are. This helps in various ways. Suppose you have a toe in of your steels, it will slow you down a bit but give your more control and make it easier to steer. It is similar to the angles of car tyres how they are set up. Obviously, the more parallel they are, the straighter the sled will go but it will be more difficult to manoeuvre. These are just basics though, there's a lot more that goes in.

Then, there's the bow of the steel. The steels are not straight, they have a kind of bow at the end. This bow also determines how much of the steel is in contact with ice at any particular point of time. One has to determine what bow will work best on what kind of tracks. You generally have different kinds of set-ups, so either you change your runners completely or you fine-tune them to a particular track. Even that has a bearing on how much stability you have and how much mobility you have.

Finally, we have the running edge, or the edge that is biting into the ice. One has to determine how sharp do you want your edges to be. The sharper they are, the more stability you have, but suppose you skid and go sideways, the edge will eat up your time too. So you see, there is a lot of science and it keeps evolving every year, but ultimately it comes down to the balance of the science vis-a-vis your comfort level and riding style.

How is your costume designed to reduce the aerodynamic drag?

The principle of balancing safety and speed applies to the designing of costume also. Up until few years ago, the costume was made of rubber because that would ensure that no air is passing through, but the moment you touch a wall at that speed, the friction would burn the rubber and obviously you'd get burned as well. So now, the suits are made of certain fire-resistant materials to avoid friction burns, but these materials have micro layers that ensure some passage of air. Again, it slows you down a bit, but it is safer, so you balance things out.

Firstpost Masterclass Luge legend Shiva Keshavan deconstructs the science technique and mindset behind his art

Racing suits are made of fire-resistant materials to avoid friction burns. File image.

Since the foot has to be parallel to the track and the toe needs to protrude outwards during the race, does it mean that the shoes are of specific design too?

Yes, absolutely. The shoes that we wear on the track are very unique. They are like a ballerina's shoes that give a bit of support to keep your toes pointed. The difference between keeping your toes pointed or not is that of a three to four tenth of a second in a 50-second run, which is huge. It means you'll finish at the 15th or 16th position. So the toes keep your feet pointed. There is a bit of padding that makes the shoe look like a bit of the front end of an airplane. Also, since we go feet first, there is some internal padding too to give us some protection from possible impact.

Our shoes definitely don't have a grip, so you must know how to walk on the ice wearing completely zero-grip shoes. In training, we use shoes that have some grip, but in the race, there's none.

Tell us something about your approach to technology and how have you leveraged it?

Technology is evolving every season and one has to be updated with the latest trends. You should know what your competitors are doing and the technology available in the market. There are certain guidelines that the sport abides by which give you certain indication of what others might be doing, but there is still a lot of keeping an eye on the opponents and making sure they do not discover something completely new.

Generally, if you do discover something that is completely new, you keep it a secret till the final day. As an athlete, I've worked with Formula One teams that have engineers to analyse the sled, who are able to produce computer-generated models and are able to come up with some interesting theories and designs or working models that I can test. Also, I have reached out to a number of Indian universities to help me with research. I have reached out to a number of steel manufacturers to help out with different grades of steel and different alloys they could use. I approached engineers with my research and talk about stuff like heat retention, or just hardness of steel, and so on.

So, you see, technicians are so important to a team because they analyse how you are driving and what kind of set up should be tried. Once the right set-up is found, you should give it enough time because there is a lot of precision and human error involved in this sport. You don't always get an environment to test these things without any external factors. There are always some mistakes that you may have made in Run A versus Run B, and when the race is measured to the thousandth of a second, how do you know whether it is your mistake or a fault of the equipment. So you should be able to test the equipment and your observations could be passed on to your team for the benefit of developmental athletes. So whatever happens at an elite level impacts the entire movement of sport in that particular country.

Let's talk about the sport itself. When you are sitting in the sled at the starting point and go back and forth to generate momentum, what exactly are you trying to do?

The start is the only moment in the run where you're able to apply external force apart from the gravity. The forward and backward movement that we do at the beginning is called rocking. There are various reasons why we do it. One is to get the rhythm and get comfortable in the right position. Another reason is to set ourselves up for the explosive motion of the start. As compared to starting from a static position, this movement gives you elasticity and recoil.

Firstpost Masterclass Luge legend Shiva Keshavan deconstructs the science technique and mindset behind his art

The forward and backward movement, or rocking, provides elasticity and recoil at the start. Image courtesy: Twitter/@100thofasec

The number one movement is what we call the compression. It is what happens when from this rocking motion, you push your body completely back... as far back from the handle as possible. That really stretches your lower back and glutes, and that gives an initial elastic motion without using your muscle power. The second thing that the compression enables you to do is that you have a longer way to travel from the moment of compression till you reach the handles. So you have more time to exert your force.

Now from the compression, we start the most explosive movements. We try to use all the muscles available to us to do that forward thrust – starting from the elasticity for which we engage our back muscles first. You are not actually pulling with your hands since you are using them as anchors and pushing with your feet, so you get the thrust from your strong leg muscles. Then, once you reach the right position, you start pulling with your hands as well.

Once your hips cross the handle, you are pushing back with your hands and you are trying to maintain as much contact with the handle as you can, because that's the only moment you'll be able to have that support. That is the start movement.

If you feel you are not going fast enough, then there's the possibility to do certain paddles. We have spiked gloves that you can use to paddle ourselves down the track. Depending upon the gradient and how fast you are going, you can get 3-6 paddles. Obviously, the paddles are effective only if they are faster then your sled. Since the time in this movement is very limited, there's a lot of biomechanics involved. We study which muscle groups we are going to engage, what is the right technique, what is the angle at which we'll have to keep our body to get the most power out of your major muscle groups, what is the angle at which your spikes are touching the ice, how much time you have to stay in contact with ice versus when do you have to go back to your original position, and so on.

The last part of the start is settling in your sled in your position. Because of the bow of your steel, you are touching the ice at two very small points, and any kind of lateral movement can cause a change in direction. So the 'settle' is a very carefully studied motion because you have just two points of contact (which makes it tough to maintain stability) and you have to do it very quickly.

You talked about paddling with your fingers on the track. Is there any optimal angle at which your fingers should hit the ice, or it varies from athlete to athlete?

There have been many studies to determine the best angle, but there's always leeway for personalisation. It's not always the theoretically best athletes or motions will end up winning the medal. There have been extensive studies and all the top teams of the world have their people studying and analysing these things. Each start is filmed, and at the end of the session, you can go and analyse.

There are software to calculate the angles and stuff. Nothing is left to guesswork. For example, if you know that your upper body is at about 80 degrees with the ice, you will transfer more power from your lats to your hands. Then, we know that we must keep our wrists straight. If we break the wrists, we are losing a lot of power. We know that if the arms are too wide and far away from the sled, you are using less surface area and you're not efficiently using your power.

So all these things are determined by science, and we know that from the moment you finish your paddle to the moment you start your next paddle, you've to do that in the fastest time possible because you can't waste time as you're looking to build momentum down the track. Also, you need a certain impact to anchor your spikes into the ice. You're not just cracking the ice, you're hammering your spikes in the ice and pushing yourself forward. So all these things are taken into consideration to determine the right start technique.

How do you zero in on the precise moment to switch from paddling to settling? Is it a matter of feel or a carefully calibrated progression?

It is not a split-second decision. It is something that is planned and we train for it. When you're training, you know the approximate number of paddles that you have to do. Now you have to find your sweet spot by taking your strengths into consideration. These strengths could be power, speed, whether you have long arms or short arms, and so on. Then, you have enough runs during the training to analyse what is the best formula for you.

Once you figure that out, you stick to it and typically do zero experiments with it, unless you have some extraordinary weather conditions such as blizzard, or say the track is much slower than what you want it to be.

Do weather conditions really play a huge part in artificial track luge considering the track is somewhat covered?

The track is covered, but only partially. It is artificially refrigerated. The atmospheric conditions play a part for sure. If it snows, you have snow coming on the track, if humidity levels are high, you'll have a frost build-up, if it is really cold, it will result in really hard ice and the edges need to be specifically prepared to grip and turn.

Once you are settled in the sled, the body needs to relax. However, the natural instinct in such cases is to be tense. How does the body achieve that relaxed state?

Okay, here's is something I explain to my juniors or kids. If you take a piece of wood and hit the back part of it to send it down a slope, it will spin out of control. Now if I take a similar-sized piece of rubber and hit it at the back to send it down the slope, it will absorb the shock and retain its path.

Firstpost Masterclass Luge legend Shiva Keshavan deconstructs the science technique and mindset behind his art

The body needs to relax on the sled to absorb bumps on the track and the core should be strong enough to counter G forces at play. File image.

The body and sled have to be similar in that sense. Your body must be able to absorb all kinds of shocks arising from bad bumps on the track or factors that cause you to change your direction. If you skid left or right, you lose momentum and will never recover in that race. So by keeping your body relaxed, you are able to absorb these kind of things.

Suppose you have a small bump in the track, your body must be able to absorb that shock. That makes it all the more important to be in contact with the sled, because through the relaxed position and constant contact with the sled, you are able to feel the track which is very important for a luge athlete.

How do you change the direction of the sled?

Okay, so basically we have two runners. If you point one runner inwards, the sled will take that direction. So if you're using your left foot to turn that runner inwards, the sled will go right. Our feet, that are resting on the runners, are doing the main steering work. Plus, the front wedge is connected to a handle. By tugging on that handle, we are able to lift the runners slightly. Minor corrections or changes in direction can be done using the handle.

Now, since the runners are not flat but have a bow, when you, for example, press your left foot, the point of contact with ice of that runner moves forward. That also causes a change of direction. This is why when you are pressing – or as we call it, rolling – towards the left or right, we keep the body on the same axis.

When we roll to one side or another, it applies pressure to the left or the right shoulder. When you are pressing the back right, the front left lifts up, and when we are pressing on the back left, the front right lifts up.

All these movements have to be coordinated because you are not changing direction on a flat surface. The curves actually lift up and go past vertical as well. When you are hitting the curve, there is a moment of impact. To smoothen this impact, you have to roll your body on the side the curve is taking, so that you lift the front of that runner and you have a smooth entrance to the curve. So the rolling is all done by head and shoulders. The footwork is for the main movement.

You have to have strong quadriceps to push down inwards through a 45-degree motion to get the most efficient use of that energy. If you press both feet inwards simultaneously, you are slowing the sled down, but you are also stabilising yourself. When you are using your left or right foot, you are turning in the direction opposite to the leg you are using. The hands complement the feet and the shoulders and head are used for the rolling motion which is used to smoothen the entrances and exits of the corners.

You told me there are a lot of G-forces at play when you are on the sled. What exactly does it feel like?

Well, it depends on how strong the G-forces are. Normally, it feels like the pressure on your body pushing you towards the track. G-forces are felt only in curves, because of the laws of motion. In our case, when we are vertical on the walls of the curve or sometimes even past vertical, we'll always be pushed to the ice. Even if you are looking down at the ground, you are being pushed upwards. It is the movement you have to learn to get used to. The biggest impact is felt on the neck muscles. The sled offers support up until your shoulders, but your neck and head are not supported. You need to build strong muscles to take that extra pressure.

You also have to work on your lower body because the G-force pushes your legs and cause the feet to touch the ice, all of which slows you down. That's why core strength is needed to maintain the form and not let the G force destabilise you. Having said that, G force is very important for us because we actually utilise it. When you are steering under G force, you have more grip because you have more force pushing you towards the ice. Plus, you can kind of trap some of that energy and release it when you have a low-pressure area to get more forward push and movement.

When you are racing, do you think at all or are you too zoned out to think anything?

It is very interesting. From the spectators' perspective, you don't have enough time to think or react, but from an athlete's perspective, you have a lot of time to think and react. It is almost as if the time is slowing down for you because we are very focussed in the moment. Each curve will have at least three or four distinct steerings that you've to do, and you're feeling the pressure, trying to use it to get some more forward push, you're thinking of the aerodynamic position, thinking of your lines...there's a lot going on, but because of the training, it all becomes second nature.

In luge, it is believed that if you have good weight or are on a slightly heavier side, it actually helps you in the race. How does this principle work, because it does sound a bit counter-intuitive?

Yes, you're absolutely correct. In theory, the heavier you are, the easier it is for you to roll down the hill. Being heavier means you can build more momentum. Physics is on the side of the weight. Of course, there is a balance between weight and maneuverability. If you're so big that you can't move or react quickly enough, you'll struggle for balance. But, in general, the heavier you are, the faster you go. For men, there is a certain average weight and if you fall below that, you are allowed to wear a lead vest to come up to the required weight. That takes away the disadvantage of being lighter, but it gives you an additional disadvantage that when you have to pull your weight at the start, you have that much extra body weight to pull. Generally, I prefer to be on the upper end of the weight band as it helps me build momentum.

How was your workout like and are there any specific muscle groups that one needs to train more than the rest?

I think for a sport like luge, you need complete, full-body training. There's no area that can be trained more than the others, such are the demands of the sport. First and foremost, you need to have a lot of core strength because that helps you throughout the run. You also need to work on your upper body – lats, triceps, forearms.

You have to have strong lower back, glutes, quads..so that's pretty much full body. We try to aim for a perfect beach body!

How important is visualisation? I have seen some of your videos where you are almost in a trance, doing some slow hand motions. Can you take me through that process?

Visuaisation is a very important part of the sport because it allows you to slow time, it allows you to go over movements and curves over and over again...and it is free! It is something all luge athletes do to prepare. Generally speaking, all high-speed athletes use visualisation.

When I sit with my eyes shut, I visualise the entire run, over and over again, from start to finish. Sometimes, if you have any problem area, suppose a few particular curves, you try to go through them over and over again. You tend to stick to a routine that is as similar to the race as possible. You can really train your mind to get used to and overcome all kind of factors such as fans, crowds, smells, sounds, and even speed. Suppose you visualise a run at a much faster speed than what you actually go at, you'll feel slow while actually doing it.

About the hand motions that I do during visualisation, I'd say everybody has different hand and body motions. It's basically to get in the flow..ultimately it is all about the flow. You have to find a rhythm, and all this helps me find my rhythm. I try to follow the trajectory of the sled, how much pressure you are putting on your feet, how much you are rolling and so.

Does breathing play a role while you're racing?

Breathing is extremely important. It keeps you relaxed and maintains high levels of energy. Correct breathing is very important at the start. You must exhale after the initial explosive motion because it helps you build a rhythm. Breathing has a whole set of advantages, number one being performance and explosivity. Number two, it helps you create rhythm, and number three, it helps you think better. When you are not breathing properly, you are not able to reason normally and there are a whole lot of repercussions to that. You try to keep your breathing as natural as possible, but you end up hyperventilating quite a bit because the adrenaline spikes the heart rate which in turn speeds up the breathing.

If I may ask, does the thought of accident ever occur to you?

Yes, definitely it does. That is one of the important mental aspects of the sport. But since the sport doesn't give you many options, you have to go as fast as you can. You have to find a way to conquer those fears... it is extremely important. In my experience, if you aren't comfortable with the venue of the race, generally, you don't perform that well as compared to a place where you feel at home or like the environment or the ice.

It must be different for different athletes, but what exactly defines a comfort zone in terms of venue or a track, because from outside, all ice tracks look similar, if not same?

It is different for each athlete, like you said. For me, I like to soak in the atmosphere. I tend to take it beyond the ice and the track itself. Agreed, the ice and the track have a major role to play, but I soak in the atmosphere, the food at a particular place, the general sights, and sounds.. and if I have a good feeling about these things, I feel at home. I generally try to live the place and enjoy it. I can't think I am going to a cold, faraway city without family. If you think in those terms, you approach things in a completely different way, whereas if you are excited about the training, about breathing in the cold air, you will have a completely different outcome.

How do you define being in the zone?

There are two things: One is when you are comfortable with the surroundings, and the other is when you are really switched on for the game or the race. It is a different gear, I think, and both are important for an athlete. When you are in the zone, you have a different aura, you feel strong. You are the same person you were the day before, but you start putting mind over matter and approach things with a lot more aggression, attitude, and purpose.

So how do you enter the zone? Is it something very organic or do you have to build into it?

It is a very tough question to answer. I think you have to want something. For me, it was all about hunger that made me bring out my best on a particular day. That's probably very difficult to explain, but I remember when my wife would travel with me for some of the competitions, she would tell me that on race days, it was impossible to approach me. I would have a different aura, and a very competitive, intimidating feel. That's what is the zone to me.

Any luge athletes you looked up to?

Yeah, many of them actually. One was Armin Zöggeler from Italy. He was the calmest and most emotionally stable character you'll ever see. Whether he was winning Olympic gold or training, his expression won't change. I really admired that trait of his. It gave him consistency. He behaved like a machine. Then, there was this Russian guy Albert Demchenko. He was pure passion. You could see the steam coming from his body when he arrived for the race. That's the zone we were talking about.

You have had a long, illustrious career. Anything you'd like to change about your career when you look back?

Again, it is a difficult question. I don't generally think in those terms, but obviously, a lot of things could have been a lot better. I could have had a coach, I could have had better equipment, but if I had any of those things, I wouldn't have gone through the journey I went through, and it was a journey that I really enjoyed. I could have taken up engineering maybe...but on a serious note, I don't think of the past a lot. I try to think about what I can do for future generations.

I have had my share of struggle, but now I want to make things easy for the next generation. I think India has tremendous potential for winter sports. We are not even scratching the surface in terms of understanding it. And this potential is not limited to sport alone. There are 50-60 million people living in the Himalayas who can use sport to work in fields such as tourism, development, hospitality, science, and technology. It is something I'd really forward to dedicating more of my life to. I'd also like to foster an Olympic way of life, you know, the philosophy of the Olympic Games. I'd like to take the core message of the Olympics to the people.

Despite being an elite athlete who represented India in six Olympics, you largely had to fend for yourself. The facilities were scare, and the money was even less. Did you ever get frustrated and thought of giving up?

Yes. There were times when I had really struggled to put food on the table and those times were very, very hard. Still, even in those times, I had this single focus and the ability to shut everything out. I would always try to reach where I wanted to go, and more often than not, I'd get there. What pushed me was the fact that I always wanted to do this on my own. I always wanted to do this from the moment I picked this sport, from the moment it allowed me to travel and made me into who I am.

I never really had an ambition for fame or money. I would feel alive in the track...I would feel I am part of something really passionate. When I got the opportunity to represent the country, I felt committed to a cause far bigger than myself, and despite everything, I'd say I am lucky that I had this chance. That helped me filter everything out – be it the officials, the lack of equipment, or things like that. I would look at myself as a machine sometimes and tell myself that come what may, this is what I have to do and will do.

Any advice to youngsters?

Well, I am not pushing anyone to take up luge, but I want everyone to do what makes them happy. Everybody is unique, and that makes our world so amazing and interesting. Get in touch with yourself. You don't have to follow anybody, but if you can make your own way no matter how tough it may be, it will be extremely satisfying. No matter how many hardships you face, you'll know you're doing this because you love it. So just follow your passion.

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