Luge Canada

Gough slides to gold medal, snapping German streak

By Vicki Hall, Calgary Herald

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Canadians like to think of themselves as a world super power in hockey. And they are, for the most part, although other countries belong in the conversation.

Germany is THE dominant nation in women's luge, perhaps more so than in any other athletic pursuit. No one else comes close.

Consider the fact the Germans strung together 105 consecutive victories in women's World Cup luge -a win streak that lasted more than 13 years.

Until Saturday.

On a new track in Paramonova, Russia, the streak finally died at the hands of a Canadian.

A Calgarian. Her name is Alex Gough, a self-described bookworm and graduate of the National Sports School

"I'm ecstatic," Gough said via cellphone that cut in and out on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. "Otherwise, I don't know how I'm feeling. I'll let you know when I'm done processing it all.

"I know it happened. I believe it. I just don't think the whole weight of it has set in.''

The last non-German athlete to grace the top of the podium was Andrea Tagwerker, of Austria, on Nov. 29, 1997.

Gough was in Grade 5 at the time. Luge had never even crossed her mind.

Canada beating Germany in luge is much like Japan knocking off Canada in hockey. Pure fantasy, until the landscape changed Saturday in Russia.

"You cannot even imagine what it was like around the finish line when a Canadian finally ended this streak," Canadian head coach Wolfgang Staudinger said. "This is not just history in Canada, but this is luge history in the world.

"We are very happy and will have to party as a team tonight."

Champagne corks have popped all season in honour of Canada's sudden flurry of success in luge. Just two short years ago, the team was in danger of losing much of its government funding.

Own the Podium pays for results. Athletes in sports where Canadians are seen to have virtually no chance of winning -like nordic combined, for example -are basically on their own.

Luge flirted with a similar fate until the hiring of Staudinger and the emergence of Gough, just one of the many Calgary kids to first try the sport during a summer camp at Canada Olympic Park. Her mom wanted to keep her teenage daughter busy in the evenings.

Little did anyone know where it would lead.

Gough delivered notice of her arrival on the international scene with a fourth-place finish at the 2009 world championships. She proceeded to rewrite the history books for Canada in feet-first sliding.

A soft-spoken type, Gough is the poster child for the renaissance of the sport in this country. Earlier this season, she became only the fourth Canadian to win a World Cup medal with bronze in Winterberg, Germany. Then she became the first Canadian to win multiple World Cup luge medals with a bronze in Park City, Utah. Then came another bronze in Konigssee, Germany.

On Jan. 30, she made history again as the first Canadianborn athlete to win a medal at the world championships (once again, bronze in colour.)

The whole time, Germany remained on top, but fully aware of the Canadian on site.

On Saturday, Gough clocked a time of one minute, 33.536 seconds. Germany's Carina Schwab placed second at 1: 33.914. Natalie Geisenberger, of (you guessed it) Germany, took bronze in 1: 33: 935. Canadian rookie Arianne Jones, of Calgary, finished ninth in 1: 34: 748.

And so, World Cup organizers needed to replace the German flag with the Canadian one for the first time in 13 years.

Good thing they had one on hand.

"It's definitely a very proud moment," Gough said of watching the Canadian flag flutter to the top in the victory ceremony. "I'm very proud of what I've accomplished."

Did she cry? "I came close," she said. "Very close."

The day opened on a sombre note with a memorial to Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian slider who died a year ago to the day just hours before the opening ceremonies at the Vancouver Olympics. The 21-year-old lost control of his sled, flew off the track at more than 140 km/hr. and crashed into a steel pillar.

He died on impact. "It was good to remember," Gough said. "Very emotional for a lot of people. Everyone still remembers the days following and the day that it happened.

"The best way to honour his memory is to continue doing what we do. He was there, because he loved it. He loved luge."

Much like Gough.

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