Led by Alex Gough, the depth of talent on Canada’s luge team has swung to the women.
Where the Canadian team once had a trio of men capable of finishing in the top 15 in World Cup and world championship races, the country now has more female contenders.
When an athlete has international success, it often has a pull-up effect on teammates. As the first Canadian woman to win a World Cup race and a world championship medal, Gough sees a wave of women building behind her.
“I kind of feel like the last few years I’ve been stepping into a more of a leadership role on the team,” she said Friday following training at Canada Olympic Park.
“I went from being the youngest in the 2010 Games to being the oldest. All of these girls are quite a bit younger than I am. I hope I am being a leader and doing the best I can to help them develop to the best of their abilities and continue to build that good team camaraderie that we have.”
The 25-year-old Calgarian represents Canada’s best hope for a luge medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Just as important, when Gough drove a wedge into the domination of German women, she showed teammates Arianne Jones, Dayna Clay and Kimberley McCrae the Germans can be beaten.
“With Alex’s achievement, it just pushes us to become like her,” said Clay.
Gough won world championship bronze in 2011 as well as three World Cup gold medals over the past two seasons.
While she missed the podium at this year’s world championship by .034 seconds to finish fourth, Canada put three women in the top 10 in Altenberg, Germany. Clay and Jones, both from Calgary, were seventh and 10th respectively.
Jones, 22, is consistently in the top 10 on the World Cup circuit. Her relationship to Gough is similar to that of the dynamic between Karen Cockburn and Rosannagh MacLennan in women’s trampoline. Cockburn was out front winning Olympic medals before MacLennan broke through with gold this summer in London.
“It’s amazing for me to train with someone like Alex because she’s been on the podium more than once,” Jones explained. “So when I train with her, I know my start needs to be as fast as her and my runs need to be as fast as her.
“Having people coming up behind you is great as well because you can’t get lazy. There’s always people nipping at your heels and they want those spots as well.”
Gough and Jones have pre-qualified for Canada’s World Cup team, as have Sam Edney in men’s luge and Tristan Walker and Justin Snith in doubles. All are from Calgary
Calgarians Clay, McCrae, Laura Glover, Jordan Smith and Jordyn Carss are vying for two remaining women’s berths on the team.
Canadian head coach Wolfgang Staudinger, formerly a coach in Germany, believes the female luge contingent is simply catching up to a general trend in this country.
“Looking at Canadian sport in general, the depth that Canadian sports has in women is a phenomenon in the world,” he said. “I saw it a lot in Germany, but here in this country, the women are a strong bunch.
“Look at women’s soccer at the Olympics in the summer. Speed skating is a prime example. The women are always in the medals and in luge we are building this right now.”
The Canadian championships are Oct. 20-21 in Whistler, B.C., which is also the host site of the 2013 world championships Feb. 1-2. The World Cup season opens Nov. 24-25 in Igls, Austria.
Canada’s luge team doesn’t boast the same stock of athletes in men’s and doubles.
Edney is the lone stalwart from the aforementioned three men crew following the retirements of Jeff Christie and Ian Cockerline. He’ll likely be Canada’s lone male on the World Cup circuit until Brendan Hauptman of Kimberley, B.C., returns from a serious concussion.
Edney, 28, was seventh in the world championships. The next world championships in Whistler is one of the reasons compelling him to continue. Edney was fifth in a World Cup there last season.
He wants to help rehabilitate the Whistler Sliding Centre’s reputation, which took a beating when Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died there during training for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The fatality cast a double pall over the Canadian lugers because the start was lowered for the Olympic races. The Canadians weren’t able to put all the pre-Games training they’d done there to a true test.
“I feel I have some almost a bit of redemption from the Olympics,” Edney said. “I love the track out there and I want to showcase what the venue is out there and showcase what Canadian luge can do out there.”
Another carrot for Edney is the a new relay event, which makes its Olympic debut in Sochi.
A male, a female and a doubles team run the track with their combined times determining the winning country. Each slider hits a pad at the bottom to start the next sled from their country, similar to passing a baton on the track.
Edney, Gough and Snith and Walker won bronze at the world championship in Altenberg.
“That was one of the biggest things, the team relay,” Edney said. “The good thing about that event is it shows the strength of our program. We just have a really good chemistry on the team that races it. For sure it’s motivation and we enjoy it.”
Snith and Walker, both 21, have been hit and miss in top-10 results as they gain experience internationally. A relay medal often hinges on their performance. Walker is currently unable to slide because of a severed tendon in his hand, which is expected to sideline him until the Canadian championships.
“We have to work on consistency with these guys,” Staudinger said. “Sometimes we win the team relay, sometimes we’re second and sometimes we’re 10th because we have a weak spot.”
The luge team was unable to get pre-season training in at Whistler because the women’s start ramp is currently under renovation.
So Staudinger plans to skip December’s World Cup race in Sigulda, Latvia, even though it costs his athletes World Cup points, so the team can come home and train there.
“Ideally the ramp would have been ready right now,” Staudinger said.
“If I’m the boat Titanic and I see an iceberg ahead, I’m not sticking to my course. I try to avoid the iceberg. We made our plans in the summer, but there was iceberg in the way, so we go around the iceberg and basically come back in December just before Christmas, knowing we’re sacrificing points and results and overall standings.
“But the priorities are the world championships. That’s our No. 1 race.”