Iceman Shiva Keshavan sets out on a new course

Endless snow and sharp pines and a man framed on a screen with mist swirling around him. The man is broad-shouldered and has chiseled cheekbones. If he had a dark overcoat on, this could be a scene from Fargo.

“It’s actually quite warm here,” said Shiva Keshavan over a video call from Sochi, where it’s three degrees. For 22 years, India’s man on ice has skimmed the edges of extremities, befriending speed in a sport measured to the 1000th of a second.

Keshavan retired as an active athlete after the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, and was appointed the chief coach and the High Performance Director of the national team last year. But, with India having no luge athlete for next year’s Winter Olympics, Keshavan has turned his attention to a man with a story as implausible as the one told in Cool Runnings.

Argentina’s Lucas Populin, who Keshavan is coaching with an eye on Beijing 2022, is 44 years old, spent 11 of those years in prison, lost custody of his child, transformed his life through sport and calls himself the “fastest grandpa on ice”.

What is it about hurtling down icy bends on a sled that inspires such tales?

“I will, hopefully, be going to my seventh Olympics, but this time as a coach,” Keshavan, who is also grooming a bunch of promising Indian juniors for the 2026 Games, said from Russia where he guided Populin to two crucial points at the recently-concluded World Cup stage. Populin now needs three points from four remaining races of the season to make the cut for the Olympics.

“I am 40 years old, and my trainee is 44. It seems an odd pairing, but if you communicate well and stay honest, you get the results,” Keshavan said. “When we are on track, I am not his friend. I teach from my knowledge and not so much from theory; I guess that makes it relatable.”

Lucas, don’t die, man!

Populin was born in Argentina in 1977 before his family migrated to Los Angeles when he was five and then to California. Populin excelled at pretty much every sport at school, ranging from football to athletics.

But in January 1999, at the age of 21, Populin’s life took a terrible turn. Arrested after an altercation with a business owner and in possession of a firearm, Populin was sentenced to a 11-year prison term. Populin, who had fathered a child when he was just 16, also lost custody of the child.

In prison, a young Populin discovered an inner strength he did not know he had.

“I made a choice to reform my life. I stayed away from pessimism and altered my thought process completely,” Populin said. “I began to think that things are not happening to me, but for me. That made me appreciate life.”

He came out of prison in June 2009 armed with diplomas from a bunch of health and wellness courses. He started a fitness business and found his calling in endurance sports like the triathlon. He even tried his hand at another winter sport similar to luge—skeleton. As word of his growing prowess on ice spread, Argentina’s Luge and Bobsled Federation asked him to consider switching to luge.

“I agreed only because I was told luge is much faster, much more dangerous sport,” Populin laughed. He was duly sent to a luge training school in Germany where he stood out for his natural speed and instinctive flair. He was already 37 by then.

“They used to tell me, ‘Lucas, don’t die, man’, because I was so quick. It was crazy. It is the age when people quit luge, but I was absolutely flying.”

Meeting Shiva

Populin was all set to make his Olympics debut in 2018, but his devil-may-care style forced the track director to not let him race at a qualifying event in Altenberg, Germany in 2017. The track was deemed dangerously fast, and a number of seasoned athletes had crashed already.

“I think I needed just one or two points to make the cut, but they didn’t let me race. They thought I’ll crash, maybe because I was just three years into my luge career. I haven’t crashed even once in my life dude,” said Populin.

From 2018 to the end of 2020, he was off luge completely. The disappointment of missing the 2018 Games was followed by the pandemic, forcing him to shut some of his businesses.

Then a thought struck him this January. “I realised, I can’t give up on my Olympics dreams just yet. So what if I was 44? I wanted to write my story my way.”

He began first on wheeled sleds, riding them through the rolling California highways. Then he called Keshavan, who had helped him chart a course during a qualification tournament before the 2018 Games.

“What I liked about Shiva, the athlete, was his immense knowledge and never-say-die attitude. He is a proper legend, a six-time Olympian,” Populin said.

The admiration turned out to be mutual.

“I liked his drive,” Keshavan said. “Even at 44, he had not given up on his dream. I remembered my years as a lone dreamer, and I thought to give this athlete everything I could never get.”

Travelling to the US from Italy, where Keshavan has been living now for a year, was a difficult proposition due to the pandemic, so Keshavan and Populin held virtual sessions—Populin lying on his roller sled on the Californian highway, holding his smartphone as Keshavan offered inputs on body alignment and positioning.

“He is just so good,” Populin said. “It’s like he watches every race in slow motion. He’ll pick out micro flaws in a flash, and those little corrections, ranging from body position or the aerodynamics of the sled, go a long way in making you a better athlete.”

The two finally met this October at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre near Beijing in China, the venue for next year’s Winter Games. Populin slipped into the sled and hit the track for the first time in nearly three years. “Man, I simply took off.”

They travelled to Sochi together, where Populin recorded a barely-believable 94 runs in nine sessions, including a 13-run day. To put things in perspective, most elite luge athletes set an upper limit of 90 runs for the entire year.

His manic training caused the track to slow down and the officials had to ask him to stop. Keshavan and Populin’s next stop is Germany’s Altenberg, the very track that was deemed too fast for Populin four years back.

Grandpa speed

Should he make it to Beijing, Populin will be among the oldest, if not the oldest, luge athlete at the Games.

Luge is a tough sport to master, and the design and development of the sled itself is a matter of great importance that some countries protect like state secrets. Keshavan himself picked the sport at 14. By 16, he was a Winter Olympian, fated forever not to have the financial and technical support needed for his sport. For someone starting at 37, there are other challenges.

“Yes, there is a definite advantage in starting young. You are more fearless, perhaps because you are not aware of a lot of things. It is easier to adapt to a technique too, ” Keshavan said.

“I quit the sport at 36, and Lucas picked the sport at 37. His is a unique case. He is a supremely fit 44-year-old. In fact, he inspires me to stay in shape.”

The biggest focus for Keshavan, with only a few months and a handful of qualifying competitions to go before the Olympics in February, has been on mental conditioning. With his years of experience, Keshavan is aware of the pressures that accompany elite competitions and the focus they demand. He has introduced Populin to the wonders of visualization.

“He taught me to visualise every single second of the race. He taught me to focus correctly, to live each moment in the race. When you are really alive to every moment, you are able to actually slow down the fastest sport on earth,” Populin said.

Despite their diametrically opposite journeys, Keshavan and Populin’s lives have a few common themes. Battling institutional apathy is one. Financial stress is another.

While Keshavan quit in 2018 because he simply couldn’t bear to drain himself out financially anymore, Populin, by his conservative estimate, has already spent over $92,000 this year to fund his career.

“Each training run costs $50. There are entry fees to be paid, coaching expenditure, food, travel, lodging, equipment…I have dissolved most of my businesses and put everything I have to chase my dream that, in real sense, began behind the bars. It’s been quite a ride, man,” he said.

Keshavan sees a bit of himself in his eccentric ward. “His struggles remind me of my troubled days when I had no one to go to. There was no help from the federation or any government. I want to be the coach I never had.”

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