Through her tears, it was hard for Alex Gough to see what she’d accomplished. By placing fourth in the women’s singles luge, she’d registered the best-ever Canadian finish in the sport, and – together with fifth-place finisher Kimberly McRae – moved her country a little closer to joining the luge elite.
But Gough fell 0.433 seconds short of the medal she craved and felt was within her grasp here in Russia. All because of a tiny error that caused her to lose speed on a key uphill portion of the track on the first of her four runs.
Gold was never a realistic target. Natalie Geisenberger, who is the Wayne Gretzky of women’s luge, won the four-race competition here by the largest margin since the sport was added to the Olympics in 1964. Geisenberger finished a full 1.139 seconds ahead of German teammate Tatjana Huefner – a gap that may as well have been a week when you’re talking about sleds racing down a 1.3 kilometre-long ice track at upwards of 130 kilometres an hour.
Erin Hamlin of the United States grabbed the bronze to become the first non-European to win an Olympic medal in women’s or men’s singles luge.
“Fourth is definitely the worst feeling. It’s just tough to be that first spot off the podium, to know that it could have been there if I’d, you know, had a better day yesterday,” Gough said, trying and failing to keep her composure as Hamlin joined the two Germans on the podium.
The slip on the first run left her in a disappointing fifth position after Monday's first day of racing. Despite two good runs Tuesday, she was unable to close the gap on the top three.
Gough placed second to Geisenberger on this year’s World Cup circuit, raising expectations that she would win a medal in Sochi. She finished 18th at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler.
“The runs today were great, but I just didn’t put myself in a good position on the first run,” the 26-year-old Calgarian said. “It’s just disappointing to not have been able to put four good runs together and have, sort of, the race that I wanted to have. I know I had way better runs in training. I just had one mistake and that was it.”
McRae, conversely, was bubbling over with excitement after her fifth-place finish, which comes in just her third season on the World Cup circuit. “I had top-10 [as a goal] I wanted to do, because I finished ninth last year (in the World Cup standings), so I knew I could be up there with the elite. But I wasn’t quite expecting fifth. It's a great surprise.”
The result served notice that the 21-year-old McRae, who also hails from Calgary, could be a medal contender at the 2018 Winter Olympics, which are to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
To take the next step – and challenge the German women who have won 12 of 15 medals at last five Olympics – McRae joked that she would “eat as much as the boys” and spend a lot of time in the gym in hopes of putting on enough weight to compete with the physically bigger Germans.
Coach Wolfgang Staudinger concurred, joking that his racers might need to change their diet. “A couple of schnitzels and sausages wouldn’t hurt, for sure,” he said after congratulating McRae and consoling Gough.
It was a joke, but only partly. Staudinger’s lithe charges are now arguably just as good technically as the Germans. But there’s a size difference that can be difficult to overcome in a race that’s about building up as much momentum as possible. “One hundred per cent it makes a difference,” said Staudinger, who was born in West Germany. “Kim is 63 kilos, Alex is 71 or 72… [sixth place finisher] Anke Wischnewski and Geisenberger are 85 kilos, and they’re one head taller. Physics played a big role.”
Both the men’s and women’s luge competitions are dominated by German racers, to the extent that other athletes and coaches from other countries don’t even talk about winning gold. They aim – hopefully – for silvers and bronzes. Germany’s luge domination began Sunday when Felix Loch won the men’s singles competition by almost half a second.
Canada still hopes to win that elusive first luge medal later this week, in Thursday’s team relay race. The luge relay is one of 12 competitions new to the Sochi Olympics. At the end of their run, racers must sit up in their sled and punch a button so that their teammates can start. Gough will race first for Canada, followed by Sam Edney, who finished 11th in the men’s singles on Sunday, then the two-man team of Justin Snith and Tristan Walker.
The Canadians are favoured to win a medal in the relay winning four silvers on the World Cup circuit this year. Ahead of them three of those four times? The Germans.
Follow Mark MacKinnon on Twitter: @markmackinnon