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Slider Alex Gough set for 2010 Olympics as Canada's best hope for luge medal

DEAN BENNETT
December 29, 2009 1:38 p.m.
The Canadian Press

CALGARY - Alex Gough was just 18 when she sat at the top of the luge run in Turin, waiting to slide, humming the pithy "Mario Brothers" theme to herself to beat back the rising tide of fear.

Down the track, crews put the race on hold while they removed the bleeding, inert body of slider Samantha Retrosi.

Seconds earlier, Retrosi had become the latest, most violent casualty of the track at Cesana Pariol at the 2006 Olympics.

In the second run, the 20-year-old U.S. slider slammed into a wall on the straightaway two-thirds of the way down.

She lost control at 130 km/h, and couldn't free her arms from the sled in time to brace for impact. She caromed into the high-side barrier, heavily impacting her skull and leaving her limp, ragdoll body to drift along the ice to a stop.

She'd cut her knee, her tongue, and her chin, and had a concussion and short-term memory loss.

Gough's mother Zan Aycock was trackside.

"We could hear the sled scraping, so we knew she was in trouble. And then she came by us - limp, unconscious. It was just the worst thing," says Aycock, her voice catching as she recounts the crash almost four years later.

"And you know Alex is up there waiting to go and you're thinking, 'Oh my God.'

"It was pretty traumatic."

Back at the top, one slider after Retrosi, it was Gough's turn. She walked out of the glass-walled athlete waiting area - dubbed "the fish tank" - and set up in her sled in the start handles.

The Mario Brothers song was gone.

"I just focused on getting down."

With the Vancouver Games looming in February, the Calgary-born Gough has gone from wide-eyed wunderkind to Canada's best hope to win its first-ever Olympic medal in luge, a sport dominated by the Germans and other European alpine nations.

Gough, born 10 months before the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, finished fourth at last year's World Cup in Lake Placid, capping a year that saw her make the top-10 in six events.

She has started this Olympic season strong, finishing sixth at the World Cup race in Calgary, then fourth last month at Igls, Austria.

Her rise is surprising for a sport where luge sliders, like race car drivers, peak in their late 20s and early 30s - the time when experience catches up to peak physical stamina.

But Gough has the gift, says Canadian team coach Wolfgang Staudinger, a former coach with the German team who has taught elite international sliders like David Moeller.

"She has an exceptional feeling on the sled and she knows how to work the physics. She keeps the sled with the G forces to give (maximum) acceleration, like shooting an arrow."

It's a skill that can be taught, but only to a certain level. To be among the elite, he says, "You either have it or you don't."

Gough grew up a downhill skier, one of three children living near the University of Calgary and Canada Olympic Park. Her mother, and father, Brent Gough, are both civil engineers.

Aycock ran marathons and woke up at 5 a.m. every day without fail to run eight kilometres.

On weekends the family would go hiking, sometimes bribing young Alex with Gummi Bears to go.

They would ski in Fernie, B.C., with friends, including Sam Edney, who is now her teammate on the Olympic luge team.

Gough was a speed demon, says Edney.

"On every run - double-black diamond, single-black diamond, a cruising run just going fast - she was always there," says Edney.

"She just seems to be the one always trying to get down the hill the fastest."

At 11, she was training seriously in downhill, running gates on the Nancy Greene program on weekends, but not enjoying it. She looked longingly at the fresh power nearby.

Forget the gates, she eventually told herself, I just want to ski.

At home, she played classical guitar and read Harry Potter books, sometimes by the glow of the flashlight under the sheets after bedtime.

In school, she was a straight-A student, often rebuked by teachers for reading novels in class instead of paying attention.

"Everything came easy for her," says Aycock. "I'm sure there were times when she was not being challenged."

When Edney took up luge and began travelling with the team, Aycock urged 13-year-old Alex to take in a luge recruitment camp at Canada Olympic Park.

Sure, said Alex. She stayed with it and began training three nights a week.

"I loved the competition."

There were growing pains, learning how to read pressures and drive lines. She hit a lot of walls in her second year.

"My arms were blue for two months," she recalls.

By 18 she was on the World Cup tour, sliding against world champions and Olympic medallists. Camaraderie was built with teammates during 13-hour drives in crowded vans around Germany, Austria, and Italy, and in small towns where everybody would slide, then go to the same bar afterward.

After 2010, she will train for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

Then she will reassess, because pursuing the Olympic dream is an uncompromising Faustian bargain - to reach this goal, almost all other goals must be set aside.

Gough says she wants to see if the millions of dollars now flowing in to her sport from the Canadian government in the Own the Podium program will continue when Canada is not seeking medals in its backyard, but in a far-removed resort town by the Caucasus Mountains on the Black Sea.

Plus, she wants to go back to school, perhaps pursue a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Calgary.

That's just not possible right now with the extensive training and travel.

"She made the decision to stay with luge and all her friends were going to university," says Aycock.

"September was always a hard time for her. (She would ask herself), 'Everybody's going (to school) and I'm here. Have I done the right thing?"'

For now, the woman with the trademark lip ring and three tattoos, including the Olympic rings on the back of her right ankle, is content with a good day, no rain, and a fast track.

"It's just so much fun to slide - to go out there and be out there. The sport is what I stick around for."

Like at Turin in 2006, when she pushed off the start handles and down the icy chute that had just devoured Samantha Retrosi like a pit bull with a chew toy.

Gough narrowly missed going for a tailspin herself in the second last curve, but kept the sled on course.

"I remember coming down on my second run and thinking, 'I'm still on sled. Cool.'

She finished 20th overall.

"We were just thrilled for her," says Aycock. "She did a fantastic job of competing."

Some parents of luge sliders can watch their kids race from top to bottom. Others must look away for the minute or so it takes their child to rocket down the course and up the out-run.

"I can watch, but I'm holding my breath," says Aycock.

"I'm getting pretty good at holding my breath for a minute."

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A quick look at luge slider Alex Gough, one of Canada's Olympic medal hopefuls at the 2010 Olympics:

Born: May 12, 1987 at Calgary.

Hometown: Calgary.

Event: Women's luge.

Olympic competition: Feb. 15-16, 2010, at Whistler Sliding Centre.

Past Olympic results: 20th at 2006 Turin Winter Games.

Career highlights: Fourth in 2009 world championships at Lake Placid, N.Y.; Fourth in Nov. 29, 2009, World Cup at Igls, Austria

Did you know: Gough has three tattoos: the Olympic rings on her right ankle (celebrating her Turin 2006 appearance); a tulip on her left hip (to honour the memory of her Dutch grandmother); and, on her inside right wrist, lilies of the valley (honouring her birth month) along with the expression "Be Happy With Yourself" written in Chinese.

Quote: "We have to go out there and do our thing and not really worry about who's expecting us to do what. It's about going out there and doing your best, and that's all they can expect us to do." - Gough on the high expectations on the Canadian luge team to make a breakthrough at the Vancouver Games.