Making winners out of our lugers

ALISON KORN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:50 PM ET

Ever wonder why Canadian athletes regularly win international medals in bobsleigh and skeleton, but not luge? The three sliding sports share the same tracks and reach comparable speeds of over 100km/h, but have a huge difference: Bobsleigh and skeleton athletes face forward, while lugers slide down on their backs. Meaning – those doing luge can’t exactly see where they’re headed.

“You don’t really look where you’re going, you rely on your feeling,” said Canadian national luge coach Wolfgang Staudinger. “There’s a big difference in a development of a slider.”

In luge, there is no fast track to success. Racers steer their sleds with subtle movements of the shoulders, legs and hands. The sport is all based on feeling and intuition, which take years to develop. So while bobsleigh and skeleton athletes usually start in their 20s as powerful, mature athletes coming from other sports, lugers can start as young as age eight or in their early teens — but then need to put in a decade of diligent work to learn the tracks.

“It just takes a long time,” said Tim Farstad, the executive director of the Canadian Luge Association. “To beat the experienced athletes, it’s just really difficult. We’ve finally had some athletes stay [longer in the sport], we’ve got the coaches in place and we’ve got the sleds, so now we’re finally starting to see it. You have to be patient in our sport.”

Finally, the patience of the Canadian luge team is starting to pay off. Last Sunday, Calgary’s Alex Gough slid into the history books as the fourth Canadian ever to reach the World Cup podium in luge. The 23-year-old won a bronze medal in Winterberg, Germany.

“This result confirms a lot of hard work for me, but I’m not done,” said the soft-spoken Gough, a two-time Olympian. “I’m still chasing these German girls. I don’t want be content with third. I’m still young and I want to keep getting better.”

The Germans have dominated the sport for decades, thanks to their access and expertise in technology and knowledge of the tracks. Canadians were just crashing around in comparison. That started to change when Canada hired Staudinger, a German, in 2007. German Olympic and world champion Bernhard Glass joined the team this summer as assistant coach.

“The recruitment of a winning coaching staff like Glass and Staudinger is a key component within our strategy of building the Canadian program,” Farstad said. “Medals in luge are won and lost in thousandths of a second. That time can be made up through sled technology, proper sled set-up, and plain old track experience.”

Staudinger’s approach is all about following a system and not panicking when results don’t come right away.

“I established a baseline and implemented a system similar to the German system,” said Staudinger, himself an Olympic bronze medalist. “We systemized the equipment, we upped the volume of the athletic training by quite a bit and upped the sliding volume by almost double. All that helps the slider to become a more instinctive slider.”

Since Staudinger was hired, Canada’s luge athletes have become regular contenders in international competition with consistent top-15 finishes and numerous World Cup team podium finishes in addition to posting a record-setting Olympic performance in 2010.

This Friday and Saturday, the 2010 Viessmann Luge World Cup is scheduled to be held in Calgary. So will the Canadian breakthrough continue? The Canadian Luge Association sure hopes so.

“Now Alex has had that one result on the podium and we’re hoping it can burst the bubble to have more podium results,” Farstad said. “There’s no secret that we don’t know now.”


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