The Canadian luge team is not counting on any home ice advantage when the FIL Luge World Championships roll into Whistler next week, according to head coach Wolfgang Staudinger. With the construction new luge starts and an international training week before the races, Staudinger said all athletes will be on equal footing when the racing gets underway on Feb. 1 — and Germany, as always, will be the team to beat.
"When we were sliding from the original start heights, that gave us an edge," he said. "Bobsleigh still has this edge because they compete from the top and the course is technical, but we've had that advantage taken away from us."
The team had a chance to train at the new starts back in December, but Staudinger said that all the athletes will get 20 to 25 runs during the training week, not including official training runs for the championships. "All the technical difficulties have been taken away, and now it's an easy, short track that makes it difficult to find an edge. And the Germans or anybody in the top eight won't need 20 runs to master the courses. For us it will be like racing any track in Europe, and the Germans, who are great, fast, athletic starters are going to be hard to beat here. They're the clear favourites, it's not us."
That said, the Canadian Luge Team is continuing to show improvements. Two seasons ago Alex Gough earned Canada's first ever World Cup luge podium, and she's been back to the podium several times since then. She's the first non-German to win a Luge World Cup since 1997. Gough has been on the podium twice so far this year and hasn't finished out of the top six.
The women's team is particularly strong, with Arianne Jones and Kimberley McRae both finishing in the top 10.
Athletes on the men's team, led by Sam Edney, have yet to land a podium but are posting or matching personal bests, while the men's doubles team of Tristan Walker and Justin Snith is also setting personal bests.
In the relatively new sport of Team Relay, Canada is also one of the stronger overall teams with two podiums this season, and three podiums in 2011-2012.
Tristan Walker did miss an event and relay this year with a mild concussion, but was back on ice for the last World Cup event and Staudinger is confident he'll be more than ready for doubles and the relay event in Whistler.
Staudinger said the improvements to team performances haven't happened overnight and aren't complete. He compared the team to running a business where you can spend the first few years without turning a profit.
"We're slowly moving into the profitable state, but we're still not the most successful business on the playing field," he said. "Our tendencies are pointing in the right direction, and in the last race we had three women in the top 10. To get the medals we still need a bit more momentum, and we're working on it and we're progressing year by year. We're giving it our best shot, and sometimes we're on the podium and sometimes not — we're just not in a state yet where we can get a podium every week."
The last event in Winterberg is a good example with five Canadian sleds making the top 15, Gough finishing sixth and Walker and Snith placing ninth in doubles. "Overall, week to week, we get a little bit better," said Staudinger. "It's not a sport where you can have success overnight."
Success breeds more success in the Canadian sporting system, where money is invested more heavily in teams and athletes that have the proven ability to win Olympic and World Championship medals. To that end, Gough's performance — and the performance of the relay team — has been huge for the national program in terms of funding and support.
Staudinger said the national team is more or less fully funded, although he said Luge Canada could use more funding for developing athletes. Canada has a strong junior team he'd like to see get more support.
"Now we have podium finishes from younger athletes, and athletes breaking into the top 10. It's never happened before and now in the last three or four years we have some fruit on the trees," he said. "To go further and make those fruits ripen, a little more money wouldn't hurt."
While downplaying expectations for podiums, Staudinger said the opportunity to host such a high level event in Whistler will help put the sport in the spotlight — and every Canadian athlete on the team wants to podium at home.
"You don't promote (the sport) just by talking, the best promotion is by getting results and then the attention follows," he said. "We don't want to come into Whistler to brag we're going to do something, but we're approaching these races like any other regular race we do, which means we'll make sure athletes are in the right place and time, in the best possible shape with the best possible conditions to execute the skills they have. Top five and top six is definitely a reasonable goal for us, and hopefully we can get a medal."
Staudinger is hoping that the event will get a big turnout of spectators. In Europe, they would see 5,000 to 10,000 fans at some events, and he says his athletes would feed off the energy of fans.
"Luge isn't a sport like hockey in Canada, but having fans out is good for them and it's a motivating factor," he said.
"Canada did a fantastic job in 2010, and this is shaping up to be a fantastic event."
For more on the World Championships, see page 55.
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