Luge

Manon Gilbert - Sunday Feb. 9, 2014 13:19 ET

Alex Gough: Canadian luge pioneer

Luger hopes to shatter the Germans hegemony in Sochi

Alex Gough

Alex Gough is looking to be the first Canadian to score an Olympic medal in luge. (Matthias Rietschel/Getty Images)

Alex Gough continues her Olympic quest in Sochi on Tuesday with the final two luge runs, starting at 9:45 a.m. ET. 

Unless fate has other plans, Alex Gough stands a good chance to come back from Sochi with at least one medal around her neck.

But that also means she'll have to continue her role as spoiler for the dominant German team.

During last year's World Cup luge season, the Germans won 22 out of 27 podium spots available, while Gough stole three bronze medals.

It’s not easy to impose yourself in the face of such domination, but she's made a habit of it. Gough was responsible for putting an end to the Germans’ 13-year and 105-race domination, when she won the Paramonovo World Cup in February 2011. Gough did it again 10 months later, at home in Calgary.

“It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of training. Mentally, you just have to tell yourself that they don’t do anything special," the 26-year-old said. “You have to keep going forward and hope to reduce the gap between you and them.”

Oddly, Gough’s rise made her opponents happy, which surprised her. But for this sport’s credibility, it was high time for an “outsider”  to come and mix things up a bit.

“It opens the door to others and it allows them to see that their domination won’t last forever. Plus, I push them to be better.”

German schooling

Ironically, Gough owes her success to two Germans: Wolfgang Staudinger, who won bronze in doubles luge at the 1988 Calgary Olympics (and is now joined the Canadian team as head coach in 2007), and Bernhard Glass, Olympic champion in Lake Placid (and assistant coach since 2010). Under their guidance, Canada has gone from a simple extra to a starring role, both in women’s, men’s and now team relay luge events.

A few months after Staudinger’s arrival, Gough broke her ankle and was forced to miss the 2008 season.

It may now be considered a blessing in disguise.

During her recovery, she realized that she could no longer cut corners. She had to decide if she was ready to give 100 per cent, or go home.

“Before Wolfgang joined the team, I hadn't really committed to this sport; I hadn't committed to develop my full potential as an athlete," Gough said. "I hated going to the gym and do all that indoor training. I did it only because I had to.

“He made me understand that the gym could help me improve, could make me better in luge, it could actually make me become the best in the world. He made me grow in terms of maturity. From then on, with a renewed energy, I chose to have a new attitude, to be the best that I could.”

That being said, Gough still had a hard time at the German school. The specific exercises, like the luge on wheels, and the gruelling days made up of 18 runs one after the other left her exhausted. The drills were necessary to make her body develop muscle memory, so that it can react in any given situation.

From there, the results came quickly. From a 25th-place finish at the end of the 2007 World Cup season, Gough jumped to eighth place in 2009 and fourth place in 2013, with 10 podiums in the World Cup and  four medals at the world championships, two of them in team relay, which will also be contested for the first time in Sochi.

Her only slip in this ascent: the Vancouver Games, where the Canadian luge pioneer had to accept an 18th-place finish.

“That was one of the most difficult experiences of my career. I delivered a disappointing and disastrous performance” Gough said. “With all that was happening [specifically the death of Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili’s], the start was lowered.

"We trained for two years for a competition that looked like it was never coming. It took me a long time to digest all that. But it made me a stronger athlete in the end.”

Gough did not miss her chance to free herself from the bad experience that was the Vancouver Games once and for all in January of 2012, during the World Cup. On that same track in Whistler, the athlete with the pierced lips and several tattoos on her body won silver in team relay and an individual bronze.

Priority: starts

More motivated than ever to eliminate the hundredths of a second that separate her from the Germans - and that confine her often on the frustrating third step of the podium - Gough focused on her starts during the summer.

“I have to be faster when I come out of the gate. I lack a bit of power and explosion. During the rest of my run, I'm just as fast as the Germans.”

And since Staudinger still has a lot of access in his country of origin, Gough and her teammates were able to train for a week on a refrigerated run in Koenigssee, German in the middle of June.

“At first I was skeptical about spending only one week in Germany. But it turned out being really positive and we gathered some good data, which shed light on what we need to improve to climb the ladder and compete with the Germans.”

It’s always the same battle. But after Turin’s baptism and Vancouver’s disappointment, Gough is ready to pursue her pioneer’s work and to become the first Canadian woman to win an Olympic medal in luge.

This story has been translated from French and edited by CBC Sports

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