Luge Canada

Gough Canada's best Olympic medal hope in luge

Alex Gough knits, plays classical guitar and is an excellent student and a voracious reader.

Sounds like a real homebody who prefers the comfort of a soft couch, doesn't she?

But when the self-described nerdy-girl is not curled up with a couple of balls of yarn or a good murder mystery, the tattooed, pierced-lipped 22-year-old from Calgary is fearlessly rocketing down a luge track at speeds reaching 140 km/h.

She's also into scuba diving and rock climbing, but it's as a human bullet that she's making a name for herself.

Coming off a surprise fourth-place finish at last season's world championships at Lake Placid, N.Y., and an eight-place standing on the World Cup circuit, Gough will likely be Canada's best hope next February to crack the zero-for-the-Olympics doughnut that is Canada's record in feet-first sliding in the five-ring circus.

I have no idea, I'm not even going to speculate, says Gough.

My goals are process-oriented. Everything I do is based on having two good starts, having clean and consistent runs. If I can pull that off two days in a row, then I'll be happy.

She was sixth in a World Cup in Calgary following her breakthrough finish at Lake Placid, then seventh in the World Cup finale at Whistler.

While those finishes are encouraging, it's still a big jump entirely to the podium that has been owned for years by luge's flying frauleins. German women swept the podium at Turin in 2006, at Whistler last February and at four other stops on last season's World Cup.

Canada has imported a German coach in the innovative and blunt-spoken Wolfgang Staudinger and has two former male German sliders on staff as sled builders. And with contributions from Own the Podium and First Track Capital, which came onboard this year as a luge-team sponsor, the squad does have more resources at its disposal.

But it's still nothing like what's available to the Germans.

So is Gough intimidated by the Deutschland domination?

Not too much, she says after a slight pause. I mean, I know they're phenomenal sliders and they're extremely fast. And I have no illusions that I'm not as good as them, but maybe on the day, who knows what can happen.

Gough, her teammates and top international sliders have been training on the Olympic track at Whistler for the last 10 days. While some of the skeleton racers that were on the track earlier said they thought some of the more dangerous turns had been fixed for the better, Gough said it wasn't a big difference and hadn't changed the way she drives the track.

I didn't really find it scary to begin with. It's a fast, technical track. It's so much fun to slide.

Staudinger likes that attitude.

I know when you go down this track, you have to be a little crazy because any normal human being wouldn't even think about that, he said. But anybody in high-performance sport has to be a bit of a nut and I'm lucky to have a lot of nuts in my team.

Gough's tattoos include a love yourself symbol on her right wrist, a tulip on her left hip - my grandma's from Holland; when she passed away I got that - and the Olympic rings on her right heel.

She no longer takes her guitar on the road - too much trouble - but did knit a scarf this fall. Much of her down time while on the World Cup circuit is spent watching DVDs of favourite TV shows or escapist reading, including the Twilight series about teenage vampires.

She offers an emphatic No when asked if she ever reads psychology or self-help books and admits she doesn't use the team psychologist as much as some athletes. It's an indication that she's pretty comfortable in her own skin and at rationalizing the ups and downs of a sport where sled control is so precise and where times are measured to thousands of a second.

At the world championships last February, Gough said her fourth-place finish, in which she shockingly placed two spots higher than two-time champion Tatjana Hufner of Germany, was a surprise to her.

I had a very crappy week of training. I hadn't made it down the track once clean. I had flip-flops in my stomach and butterflies (after the first run), but I just took a step back. It's just sliding and I'd done it a million times.

The first World Cup race of this season goes next week at Calgary. A physically stronger Gough is anxious to test her starts in real competition after pulling a personal-best start time in training earlier in the fall.

I'm still an extremely young slider and to have had those results I had (last season) is very rare. I'm just looking to see what I can do and build on what I did last year.

It's a mental game. It's about not getting in my own head, not getting above myself. I really enjoyed last year, sliding under the radar, so I'm trying to do that as much as I can this year.

Vancouver Sun