Alex Gough made peace with the Whistler Sliding Centre before her bronze medal at the recent world championships. One of the tiniest, big stories on the international winter sports scene, the 5-foot-7 Canadian luger (and one of just two non-German sliders to be on a World Cup podium this season) has conquered her past and is now focused on the future: the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Gough and the rest of the Canadian team will be in Lake Placid, N.Y., this weekend for the penultimate race of the World Cup season, which will wrap up in Sochi. It is one year to the Winter Games and Gough is in fifth place, behind three Germans and Russia’s Tatiana Ivanova, the lone non-German to win a women’s singles race (in Sigulda, Latvia) this season.
Gough has been targeted for stardom since the run-up to the 2010 Vancouver Games by a sport whose governing body is desperately seeking fresh, new faces to grow it beyond its usual borders and temper its traditional and, at times, stuffy German hegemony. (Some International Luge Federation officials would like to see her lose her lip-ring.)
But the Calgary native could only manage an 18th-place finish in Whistler, B.C., admitting she lost focus after the FIL decided to use lower starting gates after the on-track death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili.
So much for the home-track advantage that had been built up by a massive volume of runs for the shy bookworm, who was an honours student at the National Sports School in Calgary.
“Having a couple of years since then to think about it, it was obviously super disappointing and devastating. And when we came back to race a year later, I don’t think I’d left it behind or even really dealt with it,” said Gough, 25, who posted third-place finishes in the first two World Cup races this season.
“I’ve gained a lot of maturity since then.”
“I know I can’t worry about things like decisions the governing body makes. I learned a lot about myself,” Gough said.
Canadian head coach Wolfgang Staudinger, the former German Olympian whose work in turning Canada’s luge program into a world leader is one of the most underchronicled spin-offs of the Own the Podium program, knows the German program inside and out.
Canada’s equipment is on a par with the Germans, he says – and that’s no small feat considering the millions of dollars spent on technology for Germany’s luge, skeleton and bobsleigh teams.
And Gough is, in the coach’s words, “the one slider capable of breaking into the wolf pack” at the top, led by Natalie Geisenberger, a photogenic six-foot blonde from Staudinger’s Bavarian hometown of Berchtesgaden.
For her part, Gough believes it will ultimately be her ability to find more power in her starts that will put her on the podium consistently. “There’s still some time hidden in the start for me,” she said.
Canada should be well-placed for medals at the Sochi Games, where the track will emphasize technical skills as opposed to speed. For the first time, luge relay is a medal sport and because it involves a gated start and touchpads as opposed to a simple pull, extension, push and paddle start, Canada’s traditionally explosive starters have found success.
As for Gough? Staudinger agrees she was simply not mature enough to handle the “overnight change,” at Vancouver three years ago. The Germans complained about being forced to start lower down on the track, saying it turned the track into a “kinder” or kids’ track. But they laid down medal-winning times while the Canadians floundered.
Canada is a world power in bobsleigh and luge is on a similar path, which is significant since the battle for 2014 overall medal supremacy could very well be decided in the sliding sports.
You want the next Jon Montgomery (the Canadian skeleton racer who grabbed gold in 2010)? It could be Gough.