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Gough, Edney Canada's best hopes for a luge medal

The Canadian Press
By Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
Posted Wednesday, February 3, 2010 2:08 PM ET
www.ctvolympics.ca

If Canada's luge team wins a medal - any medal - on its home track at the Vancouver Olympics it will be the Maple Leaf version of the Miracle on Ice.

The competition is just that strong.

Nevertheless, rising Calgary slidersAlex Gough and Sam Edney may surprise when the spotlight shines on the Whistler Sliding Centre Feb. 13-17.

Gough, 22, famous for her tattoos and lip ring, finished in the top-six four times this year on the World Cup and was No. 4 at last year's world championships.

She already has one Olympics under her belt - 20th at Turin - and is ranked seventh in the world.

"I brush them (the expectations) off as much as I can,' said Gough. "It's still just racing. I still go into it with the same mentality as a World Cup.'

Joining her on the women's squad are Olympic veterans Regan Lauscher and Meaghan Simister.

Lauscher, from Red Deer, Alta., is on her third and last trip to the Games. She was 12th in Salt Lake in 2002 and 10th in Turin in 2006. She only cracked the top-10 twice this season, her best finish being ninth in Oberhof, Germany.

She is still coming back from 2008 surgery on both shoulders to fix wear and tear.

"I've had runs where my times were where I want them to be,' said Lauscher, adding she has used the races to fine-tune her sled.

"Physically I feel great, and mentally I think I'm in a really good spot.'

Simister, born in Regina, will slide at her second Olympics. The 23-year-old crashed and didn't finish in Turin.

With a wing span like a pterodactyl, Simister blasts out of the start handles like a thunderbolt. However, her driving is inconsistent. Her best result this year was 10th and she is ranked 20th.

On the men's side, Edney has emerged as the dark horse.

The 25-year-old had a breakout season. He finished a career-best fifth in Calgary to open the campaign and was seventh in Cesana to end it. He was 12th in Whistler in the pre-Olympic test event last year and is ranked 15th.

"My confidence in my sliding has grown in the past couple of years, and we've had some amazing training at Whistler this year that's really helped in building consistency,' said Edney.

Behind him are teammates Jeff Christie and Ian Cockerline.

The Calgary men trailed the field badly this season. Christie was 14th in Turin in 2006 and is ranked 25th going to Whistler. Cockerline crashed in Turin and is 35th.

Prospects are poor for Canada in the doubles event.

Chris Moffat is back for his third Games, sliding for the second time with his brother Mike. They were ninth in Turin but struggled on the World Cup this year as Chris, 30, recovered from a smashed wrist.

They hit the wall out of the start handles in their first race and finished 10th. Things went metaphorically downhill from there. They're ranked 15th.

Alberta teenagers Tristan Walker and Justin Snith are ranked 21st. If sheer enthusiasm could be graded, the rookies would be on the podium, but for 2010 they're just happy to be there.

The Canadians will face stiff competition in all three events.

The women's side has been dominated by Germans Tatajna Huefner and Natalie Geisenberger.

Huefner is ranked No. 1 and has been unstoppable on the World Cup circuit the last two years. The 26-year-old Saxony speedster won bronze in Turin.

Geisenberger, the statuesque 22-year-old Bavarian blond, has become the feted and photographed ``It Girl' of German sliding. She won three of the eight races. Huefner won the rest.

The Germans, in fact, swept the podium in every event, except for three bronze medals by American Erin Hamlin.

The 23-year-old from New York State made headlines last February when she won gold at the World Championships on her home track in Lake Placid. The victory ended a 99-event win streak by the German women in international and Olympic events stretching back over a decade.

On the men's side, every discussion begins and ends with Italian Armin Zoeggeler, the policeman with the lucky goatee from the German-speaking South Tyrol region.

In hockey terms, the 36-year-old has become the Wayne Gretzky of the sport.

He is looking for a third consecutive Olympic gold medal to go with nine Crystal Globes, signifying world championships.

He atomized the field on this year's circuit and is ranked No. 1 going to Whistler.

A third gold and he ties the record set by German great Georg Hackl, who was dethroned by Zoeggeler in Salt Lake in 2002 and has since retired.

Zoeggeler will be challenged by Germans David Moeller and Felix Loch and Russian Albert Demtschenko, who won silver in Turin 2006.

The doubles crown is up for grabs. A number of pairs slid well this season.

Germany's Andre Florschuetz and Torsten Wustlich are the top-ranked team. They won silver in Turin in 2006 and beat the field in Whistler at the test event in 2009.

Germany's famed Patric Leitner and Alexander Resch are No. 2. The Bavarian-born team took gold in Salt Lake 2002 and have six World Cup titles in their trophy case.

The Austrian brothers team of Andreas and Wolfgang Linger are the defending gold medallists. They won one race this year and are ranked fifth.

Results notwithstanding, Vancouver will be a watershed year for Canada's luge program, which, with zero medals in the Olympics, has been a poor cousin to bobsled and skeleton. That was reflected in the amount of funding the sport received from Canada's Own The Podium fund. Of the $14 million delivered to aid Canada's performance in sliding sports, only a quarter of it, $3.4 million, went to luge.

They have hired new team coach Wolfgang Staudinger away from the powerhouse Germans. Staudinger, the doubles Olympic bronze medallist in Calgary 1988, is slowly changing the team's culture and approach on a seven-year contract that keeps him through the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.

Sleds are now custom-built in-house and there's emphasis on strength training and faster start times. Cameras have been set up on the Whistler course for real-time visual analysis.

Still, it's a steep hill to climb.

Statistically and historically, this is Germany's sport. About half of all Olympic medals ever handed out in men's singles and in doubles have gone to Germans. Their women have taken 75 per cent. No other country comes close.

The word luge may be French, but the Germans will prove again in Whistler that they wrote the book.