SPORTS

Alex Gough to skip World Cup race and cram for world luge championship

01/17/2012 05:39 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT
After driving a wedge into Germany's domination of her sport, Calgary luger Alex Gough can now plot ways to beat them on their turf in the most important event of the season.

The 2012 world luge championships are Feb. 11-12 in Altenberg, Germany, where the host women will have home-track advantage.

Gough is skipping a World Cup race next week in St. Moritz, Switzerland, so she can travel to Altenberg. Along with the rest of the Canadian team, Gough will get some homework done on the world championship track.

Missing a World Cup race isn't an easy decision for the 24-year-old. After five races, Gough is ranked third in the overall World Cup standings, sandwiched between two German women ahead of her and another two behind her.

"Mixed feelings," Gough said Tuesday from Winterberg, Germany. "It would be kind of sweet to place in the overall but the world championships have more significance. It's a step above the overall.

"The training in Altenberg will be good for us not only this year, but also in the years to come as far as experience on the track. It's an opportunity you can't really pass up."

Gough became the first Canadian woman to win a world championship luge medal last year in Cesana, Italy, where she took bronze. Her World Cup victory in the season finale in Paramonovo, Russia, snapped a streak of 105 straight wins by German women.

This season, Gough became the first Canadian to win a World Cup on the national team's home track in Calgary.

German domination of women's luge has been so complete over the last decade that it's newsworthy when an athlete from another country elbows her way in.

American Erin Hamlin won the 2009 world title in Lake Placid, N.Y., but Gough is the only non-German now consistently contending for the podium.

"She's the only one in the ladies department that can keep up with the Germans," Canadian head coach Wolfgang Staudinger said.

Heading into Sunday's World Cup race in Winterberg, Olympic and three-time world champion Tatiana Huefner leads the overall standings with 455 points ahead of German teammate Natalie Geisenberger with 395 and Gough with 360. A World Cup win is worth 100 points.

German women have finished first to third in the overall standings for the last 10 years.

Missing the St. Moritz race will likely drop Gough out of the top three, leaving her Winterberg, where she finished third last season, and remaining races in Sigulda, Latvia, and Paramanovo to chase points.

"I won't be totally out of it," Gough said. "It will definitely be a lot tougher, but who knows what will happen in the other three races we have to go?"

When it comes to obtaining funding from Own The Podium, world championships carry more weight than World Cup events, Staudinger says. A world championship medal indicates an athlete can perform on demand in an environment similar to the Olympic Games.

Once the weak sister in Canadian sliding sports, Gough's results have given the luge team momentum heading into the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. OTP increased luge's funding this season from $578,000 last year to $613,000 this season.

Staudinger formerly slid and coached in the German system. His connections helped him negotiate the upcoming training time in Altenberg.

"The priority is definitely the three, three-and-a-half days training we can do in Altenberg just to ensure we've done everything possible to prepare all our athletes for the world championships," Staudinger explained. "Altenberg is kind of a tough track and we have a couple of inexperienced athletes with us and want to make sure we don't burn them like a log in the fire.

"We want to make sure they can handle the track safely."

He also points out that as Gough becomes more successful, the Germans may become less generous with training time on their tracks. But in the give-and-take of international sport, Canada has sliding tracks in Whistler, B.C., and Calgary to use in negotiations with other countries for training time.

Gough has followed what was a breakout year with what Staudinger calls "a stabilizing and confirmation" season. As exciting as her Calgary win was, Gough is just as pleased with a fourth-place result Saturday in Oberhof, Germany.

There isn't enough time in the season for Canada to cram in extra training in Oberhof, where again German women have a huge advantage. Gough's previous best result there was 12th.

"It's a sign of developing as an athlete to be able to go somewhere where I don't necessarily like the track in Oberhof, but I can slide well enough and be competitive regardless of how I feel about it or how much experience I lack there," Gough said. "I was so happy to be top five in that race, to have had a solid performance there."

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