Canadians looking for return to worlds podium

Whistler Sliding Centre set to host world championships for first time

They've spent nearly all winter being hosted by the powerhouse Germans, but now it's the Canadian luge team's turn to have home ice for the biggest race of the season.

The FIL Luge World Championships stop at the Whistler Sliding Centre for the first time on Friday and Saturday (Feb. 1 and 2), with the Canadians looking for a return to the podium in team relay.

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While Alex Gough has turned heads in women's racing with multiple World Cup victories, podium finishes and the first world championship medal in Canadian history - a bronze in 2011 - the success of the relay squad has been a prime indicator of the leaps forward in Canadian luge over the past few seasons.

Gough, men's team veteran Sam Edney and the 21-year-old doubles duo of Tristan Walker and Justin Snith won relay bronze at the world championships in Altenberg, Germany, last year and have a pair of second-place World Cup finishes in the team event this season. The foursome also captured World Cup silver in Whistler last season.

This year, the World Cup tour has been a grind for the Canadians, as they recently reached the end of five consecutive races in Germany. Understandably, they're glad to be back at their home track.

"At the end of our last race in Germany, the Americans had it calculated that we were out of Germany for 10 months," Gough laughed Tuesday (Jan. 29) before a team training session. "It's hard - because (those tracks) are so familiar to the Germans and they're so dominant - for us to be competitive there. So it's nice to be at home in a familiar environment on a track that we're really comfortable on."

The Germans are undefeated in team relay races this season, but they're not unbeatable.

Canada shocked Germany at Igls, Austria, last season by winning the first World Cup race of the year. If the Canadians are able to pull off the upset again on Saturday, it shouldn't come as big of a surprise this time, said Walker.

"As a team we really feed off of each other's energy," said the Calgary native. "We have such a well-rounded team ... that if all three of us put down a run to the best of our ability, we'll always be a threat."

Walker and Snith are having a tremendous season in doubles as well, with four top-seven finishes in World Cup racing. Their results are extra impressive since Walker had to make a quick recovery from offseason surgery.

Walker severed tendons in his hand in a "stupid accident" away from the luge track, requiring him to have an operation just a few months before the World Cup schedule kicked off.

"I got cleared by the surgeon the day we left for Europe," he said. "So we've had a really, really good season considering that in September we didn't even know if we'd be competing this year."

Edney, 28, said he's seen a new level of development out of the doubles duo this season.

"Their maturity towards sliding has really increased this year," said Edney, who has seen Walker and Snith really take off since a seventh-place finish at Igls to start the season. "As soon as they had that confidence (from that result), it opened up a new door and a new mental state for them."

Making strong push-offs from the new women's start will be key for the Canadian team on Saturday. At less than 40 seconds, the track has the shortest run time of any in the world from the new ramp, where all relay competitors begin their runs. In other words, there's less opportunity to make up for a slow start further down the track.

Strong starts have been the foundation of German dominance, and getting out quickly is something Canadian coaches Wolfgang Staudinger and Bernhard Glass have been working hard on with their athletes to help close the gap.

"Wolfgang and Bernhard stress it all the time - the start is the hugest part of the run because you can create this velocity that you then have the whole way down," said Edney. "It's free time, basically, and for us that's our biggest thing, what we're working on every week."

Italy, Austria and Russia are the other best podium threats in the relay field, but the Italians will be missing a key part of their team as Armin Zöggeler will not compete. The six-time men's singles world champ, and a bronze medallist during the 2010 Olympics in Whistler, has elected to skip the event and rest up for the World Cup race in Sochi later this year.

With Zöggeler out, a German sweep of the men's singles podium isn't out of the question. With three victories this year, Olympic champ Felix Loch leads the World Cup standings. Countrymen David Möller - the silver medallist from 2010 - and Andi Langenhan hold the next two spots in the rankings.

It's a similar story on the women's side, as Germany's Natalie Geisenberger comes to Whistler on the back of three straight World Cup wins. Anke Wischnewski and Olympic gold medallist Tatjana Hüfner sit second and third, respectively, in the standings.

But Gough will look to break up that trio. She's the only non-German slider with multiple podiums this season and will likely finish with a medal if she can lay down two mistake-free runs.

"I just need to stay focused on the runs and performance and not really worry about the stage we're on whether it's worlds, or that we're at home or any of that external stuff," said Gough, adding that "it would be amazing" to find the podium at a third-straight world championships this weekend in either of her events.

"That's always the goal and hopefully that's what happens, but I'm trying not to focus on that too much and just do my thing. I know that if I perform to the best of my ability, I'll be there and I have that potential."

Gough leads a Canadian women's team that should challenge for several good results on Saturday. Arianne Jones and Dayna Clay both posted top-10 finishes at last year's world championships, while Kim McRae could also surprise with a strong performance on home ice.

Races get underway at 3 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, starting with doubles on Friday and the men's singles at 5:15. Women's racing opens up Saturday's schedule and will be followed by the relay at 6:15. Tickets are available for purchase at www.whistler.com for $10.

Spencer second in Calgary

Pemberton's Jenna Spencer secured her best Junior World Cup luge result to date by finishing second in youth women's racing in Calgary last Thursday (Jan. 24).

Spencer finished .078 seconds back of American winner Theresa Buckley but posted the fastest time of the day on her second run. With the result, her second podium finish of the year, Spencer now has a firm grip on the youth women's standings, leading by 60 points with three races remaining.

Fellow Pemberton resident Nicole Pidperyhora also raced in Calgary and finished sixth. She sat seventh after one run but moved up one spot after a solid second session.

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