Changed start mixes up women's luge race

Austrian in position to break German stranglehold on podium

One year ago, German women swept the podium at the first luge World Cup held at the Whistler Sliding Centre. German women also swept the medals in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics.

In these Games, where a drastically different start could wreak havoc with expected results, it's almost a whole new ball game on the Whistler track.

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Sliding out of the gate second on Monday (Feb. 15), Austria's Nina Reithmayer seized the lead in the first of the night's two heats, leaving German favourites Natalie Geisenberger and Tatjana Huefner sitting second and third, respectively. Huefner, the 2006 Olympic bronze medallist, has won the overall World Cup title in the last three seasons, while Geisenberger finished second overall in the last two seasons and won the World Cup event in Whistler in 2009.

Huefner took the lead after the night's second run, in which she improved her handling of the "very hard" start in her second trip down the track. Reithmayer dropped to second, and Geisenberger to third, while Russia's Tatiana Ivanova jumped two spots into fourth, keeping Germany's Anke Wischniewski into fifth. Latvia's Maija Tiruma sat second after the first run but dropped to eighth after the second pass.

"I think it's the key of the track," Huefner said of the revised start, adding that she hopes she can get it right again in tomorrow's (Feb. 16) final two runs.

American Erin Hamlin, who slid to gold in the 2009 World Championship to knock Germany out of the top seat for the first time since 1993, and who finished fifth in the World Cup race in Whistler, is currently 15th, after posting the eighth-best time in her first run and the 20th-fastest time in her second.

Hamlin said her result was "not what I initially hoped," and she pointed to the changed start as the difference in her runs.

"It's just a matter of an inch difference to be horrible or to be good," she said, adding that she "went into them both the exact same, and came out half a second slower in the second one, so who knows."

Canadian veteran Regan Lauscher of Red Deer, Alta., sliding in her expected final Olympics after a courageous career in which she's become Canada's only World Cup silver medallist in luge, is sitting 20th after the first two runs. Calgary's Alex Gough, who posted Canada's best world championship finish by sliding into fourth at last year's event and finished fourth at the most recent World Cup event, sits in 22nd, while teammate Meaghan Simister is 25th.

Following the shocking crash that tragically killed Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili on the first day of the Games (Feb. 12), the women lugers are beginning their races from the junior start position, shortening their course by 245 metres. The men's race began from the usual women's start, while the doubles event will also use the juniors' start.

International Luge Federation officials said they made the decision to lower the starts primarily for "emotional and psychological reasons," seeking to alleviate trauma for the athletes after Kumaritashvili's accident.

Canadian coach Wolfgang Staudinger said the altered start, which caused many of the women's racers to slide unevenly into the course on Monday night, makes a virtual lottery of the results.

The angle of the start isn't designed to allow for speed, he said, because it's shaped for junior racers. So the women have to balance trying to slide down the 12-metre start into a difficult turn to enter the track while carrying enough speed for a good start, but not so much speed that they run into the track wall.

Staudinger said it's very hard for them to navigate the entry without hitting the wall or skidding and losing velocity and momentum.

"That is the lottery game. This is very, very difficult," he said.

He added that the effect of the changed start on someone like Gough, who posted leading times in training runs from the women's start and was a medal threat, "breaks my heart." And Simister, who usually can be among the world's best starters, has seen her strength "taken away right there on the spot."

A clearly frustrated Gough likened the start to "running into a brick wall," and said she feels like she's banging her head against a wall trying to solve the start. Many of the racers Monday evening swung back and forth in the track as they tried to navigate the entry.

"The decision to move us down is wrong. You can see, watching the sliders, that it's not a start that's meant to be raced from," she said, later adding, "Honestly, we send 13-year-old girls from this start. The Olympic race should be raced from the women's start."

For the Canadians, the lowered start position obliterates the home-soil advantage they have tried to cultivate through their two years of training on the Whistler track. Simister said she also wouldn't be surprised to see someone end the Germans' streak of Olympic podium sweeps, because the changed start has changed the competition so much.

"It's anybody's game now, because the (regular) start is obsolete. Now it's up to that one corner and who can do it without making a hockey stop," Simister said.

Though some frustration was evident in their words, and their body language when they completed their runs, the Canadians are coping with what Lauscher called "such a great challenge."

"It is what it is and we're trying our best. I'm loving the crowd and the experience is just wonderful. (But) it's tough out there," Simister said.

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