There will be high hopes for Alex Gough to be standing on the podium Tuesday night after the fourth and final women’s luge run at the Sanki Sliding Center, which would give Canada its first-ever Olympic medal in the sport.
If she is, it will be the latest Canadian luge first the 26-year-old has achieved over the past few winters.
Since the 2010 Games, Gough has established herself as one of the world’s best in a sport that has been dominated by the Germans. The Calgary native is heading to her third Olympics – she placed 20th in 2006 and 18th in 2010 – but the first at which she’ll be expected to make a serious challenge for the podium.
When Gough claimed her first World Cup victory in 2011, the first by any Canadian, it ended a 105-race winning streak for Germany that had lasted 13 years. Her world championship bronze from 2011 was also a Canadian first, and she’d go on to claim another third-place finish when the world championships were held at the Whistler Sliding Centre in 2013.
Gough reached the podium in six of nine World Cup races this season, and was the only non-German athlete on the circuit to collect multiple medals. She ended the season ranked second in the women’s standings, although the German team opted to skip the final event.
So, how do we assess Gough’s chances in Sochi?
Her World Cup win that broke the long-running German streak did take place in Russia, but at Paramonovo, not the track at Sochi. Gough finished sixth during the Olympic test event last year.
Meanwhile, Natalie Geisenberger has been dominant this season. She won seven of her eight World Cup starts this year and is the reigning world champion. Teammate Tatjana Hüfner, the 2010 Olympic gold medallist, was the only person to beat her this year and won’t be willing to let go of her title easily. They’re just two of the podium threats wearing German colours in Sochi – Anke Wischnewski gives the team a great chance to sweep the medals, which Germany did three times in World Cup competition this year.
The Russians will have home-track advantage in their back pockets, and early indications are that they’re putting it to good use. Tatiana Ivanova is a medal threat at any World Cup stop, but she and teammates Ekaterina Baturina and Natalja Khoreva have been particularly strong in training this week. The Russian team skipped the North American swing of the World Cup tour this season to get in extra training at the Olympic venue and that move looks to be paying dividends right now, highlighted by Albert Demchenko’s silver in the men’s race on Sunday.
Geisenberger seems unbeatable right now and will likely cruise to gold if she slides mistake-free, leaving about a half-dozen others to battle it out for the silver and bronze positions.
There are a few dark-horse picks that could be part of that group, including Canada’s Kim McRae. She joined Gough on the podium at Altenberg, Germany, this year for the first World Cup medal of her career and posted top-six finishes at three of the last four World Cup races. Arianne Jones will be the other Canadian in the event, having won a head-to-head race-off against Jordan Smith in Calgary earlier this winter for the last spot on the Olympic team.
Don’t count out the Americans, either – Erin Hamlin is the only non-German to win a world championship title within the past 20 years, while Kate Hansen won the World Cup finale this season when the German team was absent.
It’s a difficult task ahead for Gough, but if there’s one area where she’s been great at the Sochi track, it’s in the start. Getting strong push times has been something Canadian head coach Wolfgang Staudinger has worked hard at with his team, and Gough has been great out of the gate in Sochi so far this week, posting the quickest start time for her training group on three of four runs.
You can’t win an Olympic luge race on the first two runs, but you can certainly put yourself out of medal contention, so the No. 1 goal for Gough will be to slide consistently on Monday to ensure she’s among the leaders for the final runs on Tuesday.
Gough has been a big-time performer over the past four season, be it solo or as part of the medal-hopeful relay team that will compete later this week. That’s why I’m picking her to finish on the podium, and give Canada an Olympic luge medal that was almost unthinkable just four years ago.
Follow along by tuning in for the women’s race getting underway Monday evening in Sochi. Run 1 and 2 take place at 6:45 and 8:20 a.m. PST on Monday, while the third and fourth runs are scheduled for 6:30 and 8:10 a.m. PST on Tuesday.