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Olympic luge hopeful Alex Gough into piercings, books and speed

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Alex Gough lives two lives.

In one, she's an excellent student, a classical guitarist and self-described "nerdy-girl" with her face always in a book.

In the other, she's a multi-pierced speed demon whistling down the luge track at more than 100 kilometres per hour.

Her coaches have gently suggested Gough remove her lip ring for racing, but it's still there.

"It's part of the way I am and my style, I guess," Gough said. "I'm not really much for conforming.

"I was a good student and a good kid, so it's my way of breaking away of being the nerdy little girl that I am. I spend 90 per cent of the time with my nose stuck in a book."

The fantasy genre, including the "Twilight" series about teenage vampires, is Gough's preferred literature, but she'll "demolish" any book that catches her fancy.

There's nothing bookish about the 21-year-old Calgarian when she sets her sled down at the top of the luge track. Gough (pronounced goff), served notice at this year's world championships she's ready to go head to head with the best in the sport.

Her fourth-place finish at the world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Feb. 6 was the best ever by a Canadian in that event. Gough then posted a sixth-place finish on her home track at the Calgary World Cup last Friday, a career best for her on the World Cup circuit.

She's the Canadian to watch in the World Cup finale Friday and Saturday on the 2010 Olympic track in Whistler, B.C.

Gough currently ranks eighth in the World Cup overall standings.

"Alex has definitely always had a really good feeling for sliding and she's been able to capitalize on that," Luge Canada high performance director Walter Corey said. "She slingshots herself from curve to curve and builds a lot of speed as she goes down the hill.

"Probably a big step forward for her this year is increasing her physical conditioning."

Regan Lauscher of Red Deer, Alta., and Meaghan Simister of Calgary will also race women's singles Friday. Calgary brothers Chris and Mike Moffatt, Grant Albrecht of Red Deer, Alta., and Nick Olson of Calgary will race men's doubles.

On Saturday, Calgarians Jeff Christie, Sam Edney, Ian Cockerline and Tristan Walker will compete in men's singles.

Gough finished ahead of Tatjana Huefner, the current World Cup leader and Olympic bronze medallist, and her German teammate Anke Wischnewski, at the world championships.

That's significant because German women swept the podium at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, and have won all three medals in five of eight World Cups races this winter.

Germany carried an incredible winning streak of 99 straight victories in Olympics, World Cups and Olympics until the world championship when American Erin Hamlin prevailed on her home track.

The Germans are so accustomed to dominating women's luge that their lone silver medal at the world championship was considered a shocking failure.

Huefner, Wischnewski and teammate Natalie Geisenberger are still the favourites at the 2010 Olympics, but Hamlin demonstrated there is such a thing as home-track advantage, which inspires Gough.

"It shows when you take them off the four German tracks and the European tracks which they've had hundreds and hundreds of runs on, it evens it out a little bit," Gough said.

The time Gough has spent and will spend sliding down the Whistler track prior to the Olympics could give her a precious hundredth of a second or two in 2010.

In the face of the German luge machine, she's still an underdog for a medal in 2010. Canada has never won an Olympic medal in the sport.

But finishing one step off the podium at the world championships gives her confidence.

"I don't have the greatest starts in the world," Gough said. "Just putting down two solid runs and half-decent starts and you can be up there with the top five in the world."

Gough was the second-youngest woman in the 2006 Olympic luge field at 18 and she finished 20th.

"I was totally the wide-eyed little kid," she recalled. "I'm super-grateful for having had that experience."

She did not race the World Cup circuit at all in 2007-08 because she broke her ankle in a freak crash two weeks into training.

"Her injury definitely set her back," Corey said. "She missed a really long season with a lot of run volume and a lot of physical training. She definitely was behind the 8-ball already starting last spring.

"She's done a great job to battle back. She needs to keep on the same learning curve and see what next season brings for her."

Gough was less than a year old during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, but she's a product of the legacy left from those Games.

While she skied and participated in a race program in Fernie, B.C., on weekends, her mother Zan Aycock wanted a sport for her 13-year-old daughter to do during the week.

Aycock heard about a luge recruitment camp at Canada Olympic Park, where the Olympic bobsled, skeleton and luge were staged in 1988, and signed Gough up.

"She liked skiing and going fast, but she wasn't really involved in any team sports, so I was just looking for something that would catch her interest that she could get involved, since it's good to keep kids busy," Aycock said.

The extreme aspect of luge - the women will go 140 km/h in Whistler - appealed to the bookworm.

"I've always been that little kid that goes down the hill at Mach 2," Gough said. "I'm a bit of a speed junkie and I love the adrenaline rush. It's tobogganing at an extreme level."

Aycock says she's more anxious about the 2010 Olympics than her daughter.

"I don't know where she gets it because as you can tell I'm a nervous wreck about it," she said. "She has a lot of composure at the races and she doesn't get that from me. She must get it from her dad, who is composed under pressure."

Aycock and husband Brent Gough plan to be in Whistler to watch their daughter race in the Olympics next year.

"For 2010, knock on wood, we're just hoping that next year can see her be as successful as she is this year," her mother said.