'Nerdy girl' eyes a medal
29th November 2009, 4:21am
Canadian luger Alex Gough is like a submarine going in for the kill.
Yesterday, the Calgary athlete finished fourth at the luge World Cup in Igls, Austria, her best showing ever on the sport's highest circuit.
But what was particularly impressive about Gough's performance was that she finished just an eye lash behind the bronze-medallist Anke Wischnewski of Germany, but comfortably ahead of the "wolf pack," as Canadian team head coach Wolfgang Staudinger describes the rest of the field.
"Basically what we saw from Alex was a historic performance," Staudinger said from Igls. "What she did has never been done before in Europe. She always had good performances on home tracks or in North America, but this is the best showing in Europe."
The incredibly strong German team swept the podium, led by three-time world championship medallist Natalie Geisenberger (one minute, 19.229 seconds), followed by Tatjana Hufner (1:19.282) and Wischnewski (1:19.289). Gough's combined time was 1:19.533.
Ironically, the next best finish after Gough was another German, Corinna Martini (1:19.702), whom Staudinger coached a couple of years ago before moving on to the Canadian team.
Gough, 22, is almost a wunderkind on the world luge scene. After missing the entire 2007-08 season when she broke her ankle in training, the self-proclaimed "nerdy girl", who often flies down the world's fastest tracks at more than 100 kilometres an hour wearing a lip ring, has consistently climbed the international rankings. Last season, she was fourth at the world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., and consistently cracked the top 10 at World Cups, her best showing a pair of sevenths. But now, after two World Cups this season, Gough has posted a sixth (last week in Calgary) and a fourth and has a podium finish squarely in her sights.
"It definitely will happen," Staudinger said. "It's just a question of when."
If Gough does win a medal on the World Cup circuit, it only figures that a medal at the Vancouver Olympics this February, on the home track in Whistler, might follow. Staudinger is certainly hoping for that, even if it means a little domestic discord.
His wife, Marie-Claude Doyon, holds the mark for the best showing ever by a Canadian female luger at the Olympics. Doyon finished seventh at the 1988 Calgary Games. She is proud of her finish in Calgary but said last week that she would like nothing better than for a Canadian to finally better her mark and is counting on her husband to do his part for that to happen.
Ever since her mom signed her at an luge recruitment camp at Canada Olympic Park when she was 13, Gough has shown a definite knack for flying down a mountainside, and her performances have steadily improved under Staudinger's tutelage. This past off season, the former West German luger had Gough work on her technique, but especially on her strength and conditioning. Gough gained five kilograms of muscle and her starts are consistently improving.
"I really believe in myself and I know I belong in that group with the top sliders," Gough said yesterday. "I just need to continue to learn and I know anything can happen."
As for the Olympic Games, Staudinger is not counting on a home track advantage, even though such a beast clearly exists. At the 2009 worlds, American Erin Hamlin, ranked seventh in the world, won the gold on her home track in Lake Placid. Staudinger said the team will train on the Whistler course as much as possible to squeeze out every fraction of a second.
"I always compare it to Formula One racing. When you go to a new track, the fast drivers, no matter where they go, are the best," said Staudinger.
"But we're definitely in the game," he said of the Canadian team, and Gough in particular. "We have to keep our foot to the pedal, not freak out, do our homework, not go crazy. If we do that, anything is possible."