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VANCOUVER 2010: LUGE: 2009-09 VIESSMANN WORLD CUP SEASON Chasing Germany

Top luge nation sweeps the women's podium on the Winter Games courseMATTHEW SEKERES - www.globeandmail.com
February 21, 2009

WHISTLER, B.C. -- Imagine if football was an international sport with a touring World Cup circuit and Olympic medals to award every four years.

And imagine how the United States would so dominate. Competitions would be foregone conclusions, and the Americans would beat other nations to the point of boredom if not cruelty.

Welcome to women's luge.

Less than one year out from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, it is almost guaranteed that a German will win gold. It's nearly as conclusive that Germans will win silver and bronze as well.

This is the world that every other luging nation inhabits.

"It is frustrating, but it's just a whole other level in Germany," said Meaghan Simister of Regina, one of the fastest starters in the world who routinely hands back time to the Germans while on course. "I have to focus on myself."

Yesterday, Germans placed first through fourth at the season-ending FIL World Cup at the Whistler Sliding Centre.

Natalie Geisenberger, who was ranked third in the world heading into the 2008-09 season, earned her third victory of the campaign and completed a German sweep of all nine World Cup races this season. Tatjana Hufner, the top women's luger on the planet, finished second and clinched the overall world title for a second consecutive season. Hufner won six races this year.

Anke Wischenewski finished third and Steffi Sieger was fourth.

The best non-German competitor, American Erin Hamlin, placed fifth but was more than one second off the winning pace in a sport where 10ths, 100ths and sometimes even 1,000ths of a second usually separate the medalists from the also-rans.

The German win streak now stands at two, with both victories coming on Canadian soil. Previous to that, the Germans had won 99 consecutive races.

But their epic streak ended when Hamlin shocked the luge world with a victory at her home track in Lake Placid, N.Y., at the world championships earlier this month.

Hamlin admits it was her best day ever. She set a track record on a familiar course, and one week later, an Austrian broke up an all-German podium at the World Cup event in Calgary.

Today, Hamlin is a symbol of hope.

"I think it was really good for the women's luge world," Hamlin said of her monumental win. "They see that others can get on the podium and win and say 'Okay, it's time for us to get going.' When the same people win every race, it's very boring."

Alex Gough of Calgary, who placed seventh yesterday, said that athletes from every nation other than Germany were at the start line for Hamlin's final run, encouraging her to snap the streak. Gough finished fourth that day - the best Canadian women's result at a world championships or Olympics.

But the Canadians are hesitant to talk about challenging for podium places in 2010 because the Germans are so superior, and because Canadians are still setting up their sleds - sharper blades set at safer angles - at more novice levels. German sliders may take to the track at six, whereas in Canada and in other countries, sliders almost never begin that young.

Their run of victories had gone on so long - since November of 1997 - that it was almost embarrassing. More tellingly, the Germans believe Hamlin's win was positive for their sport and readily admit they need to be threatened by other countries from time to time.

"At the world championships, there were six nations on the podium. Last year, there was one nation," Geisenberger said. "So, for our sport it was really good. We were not angry but a little bit shocked that we were so slow."

It seems the German performance that day - second, sixth, 10th and 17th - is permanently seared into the minds of the luge community. Both an athlete and an official rattled them off like a PIN number.

The official even joked that they looked more like German lottery results than German luge placements.