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Fully Focused: Wolfgang Staudinger

The Globe and Mail
By Jeff Blair
Posted Friday, December 4, 2009 9:24 PM ET
www.ctvolympics.ca

ALTENBERG, GERMANY -- Not much escapes Wolfgang Staudinger. But on this frosty, unseasonably cold morning ("minus-two is cold for Europe," he says), the coach of Canada's up-and-coming luge team is stuck for the name of a song that he says sums up the repetitious nature of training.

"The song is about Joe and he works in a button factory. It's a kid's song, but what it says is that repetition creates instinct," Staudinger, a native of the Bavaria's Berchtesgaden and a former Olympic medalist and German coach, said. "I wish I knew the name of it. Sorry."

It is Thursday morning before a weekend of World Cup races here just across the German border with the Czech Republic. Dresden is 50 kilometres to the north. Prague beckons 110 kilometres to the south. And Staudinger is standing before corner 11 of this 1,413-kilometre track, once again wrapped up in the eternal search for a few hundredths of a second.

Canadian assistant coaches Stefan Skel and Robert Fegg - both, like Staudinger, products of the German national program - are stationed at curve 9 and curve 4. British coach Tommy Zeitz is at the transition area between turns 14 and 15, because the Canadians and British have a formal partnership. Zeitz, too, is German and when Staudinger is asked how many German coaches there are around the world, he laughs and says: "Many. We're like Austrian ski coaches."

Each operates a hand-held two-way radio receiver and transmitter, and their locations aren't accidental.

"This turn sets you up," Staudinger said. "After turn 10 into 11 it becomes extremely flat here in Altenberg and if you don't bring the velocity and momentum with you in a straight shot - like an arrow shot - then if you have a disadvantage of a hundredth of a second it will probably multiplies to 5 one-hundredths at the finish."

The Canadian staff is at turns 4 and 9 and Zeitz mans the transition between 14 and 15. "Key holes," Staudinger calls them. "Sections of the track where most of the problems occur; sections that set you up where if you don't nail them 100 per cent, your time is simply slower."

The Canadians do not have video capabilities here - in Whistler, they'll have state of the art stuff - but Staudinger isn't worried. "I can live a week without video," he said. "By the time it takes you to set it up, you're on to your next run, anyhow. And after three runs, it's too late. The runs are gone."

If something egregious is noticed, it is not uncommon for Staudinger to pull out a sled at the team hotel, get his athlete to lie on it, and then stand behind them and grab their hands and show them the proper pressure point.

It's good that it's a bit cool, as pop music echoes off the hills from the track's public address system when the track announcer isn't telling each competitor their intermediate times in a variety of languages, personalizing some of the announcements.

"Nothing like a good Saxon accent," Staudinger said, laughing.

A skier would understand why cold is better, the Canadian coach said: Driving conditions are tougher, and "like a skier waxing his skis, if he knows the hardest conditions, adjusting to the softest conditions is not so difficult."

One by one the coaches impart their observations to each athlete at the end of their run. The radio crackles and Ian Cockerline of Calgary is told by Staudinger: "You brushed against the wall but kept it to the curve. It was the 100-per-cent right correction. Do not change anything because on this one you have hardly any influence. You could squeeze it out a bit harder but I wouldn't change anything. Go the same way and with next run, with a little bit of luck you might be two centimetres later and everything will be good."

Later, he tells the doubles team of Calgary's Justin Snith and Tristan Walker: "Loop in kreisel [the German word for turn' refers specifically to any turn on a sliding track that moves a sled between 270-360 degrees around the circumference of a circle] still in place. Try to correct the first pressure point. Undercut it a little more. That should take care of the problem ... but on the exit you got the height in the right place."

Height? Staudinger points to a red flag hanging down in one of the corners. The goal is to have the sled some place in the middle of the wall when you pass under the flag. "All you see when you're lying on a sled is a white wall," Staudinger, who is married to former Canadian luger Marie-Claude Doyon, said.

"The red flag tells you the actual pressure and steering point, providing you have a straight line through the kriesel," Staudinger continued. "So, the red flag is where you actually have to steer the sled out for a straight push into 11."

Staudinger may not remember the details of "the button song" (it's Hello, My Name is Joe, by Peter and Ellen Allard) but he knows what to suggest to medal-hungry Canadians trying to wrap their head around one of the most Euro-centric sports at the Vancouver Olympics, dominated by the Germans and a 36-year-old Italian police officer named Armin Zoggeler, who is bidding for a medal in his fifth consecutive Olympics?

How about: Go stick your hand out the car window when you're going 100 kilometres an hour. Now imagine trying to prevent your entire body from vibrating while you're lying on your back on a sled. Good luck with that.

"You have to keep an aerodynamic shape in winds up to 130 kilometres a hour and one part of this track, you're pulling three or four Gs and before you know it, your neck is gone," Staudinger said. "The better your body tension the better the speed."

The communication on this day is hardly a one-way street and two of the Canadian sliders with impressive early season results, Alex Gough, 22, and Sam Edney, 26, are particularly candid yet analytical. That's good. Staudinger likes his athletes to question him and make suggestions.

"Imagine a Formula 1 driver," Staudinger said. "He's finished doing his laps in Montreal and he comes back to the pits and doesn't give the proper feedback on changes to the car. What happens? Nothing happens.

"These two give me proper feedback, we respond properly and the action takes place - bang-boom! There's no Well, coach, my thing doesn't work.'."
So what does Canada's luge future - immediate and long-term - look like from Turn 11? The goal is to hope the Germans cough up one or two medal spots, and be there with the Austrians and Latvians if that happens.

"We increased volumes and physical standards and now we are right there in comparison to the Germans - which I know because I coached those guys," Staudinger said.

"We are right in the same league in the theoretical numbers. Now it's just a question of recalling the performance and putting it into action. But it won't happen bang-bang-boom. It doesn't happen like this."