Life in the old days wasn't so good for Canada's lugers. They would show up on the World Cup circuit like brothers and sisters of the poor. They had next to nothing, not even a first-aid kit. Their European foes would laugh at them and say, "Puny Canadians. We will crush you beneath our sleds."
And they would. Repeatedly.
Twelve years and many humbling moments later, Canadian lugers have pushed themselves to a monumental brink. For the first time, Canada enters a Winter Olympics as a genuine medal threat, both in the women's event and in the newly created mixed-team relay, where times from all three disciplines (men's and women's singles plus men's doubles) are added together.
As proof, consider what went down in early January when Alex Gough won a silver medal in her race, then added another in partnership with Sam Edney, Tristan Walker and Justin Snith in the mixed relay. Consider, too, that since 2009 Canadian lugers have won more than 20 World Cup medals and four world championship medals and that in 2011 Gough became the first non-German athlete to win a women's World Cup in 13 years, a span that covered 105 races.
Puny Canadians? Not these days and not this team.
"When I first joined the national team it was not really a thought of challenging for the podium," explained Edney, a 29-year-old two-time Olympian. "It was thinking of getting down the track and maybe cracking the top 20. It's changed now."
As the man largely responsible for initiating that change, Wolfgang Staudinger is not in the business of predicting Olympic medals, especially when the victors are determined after two days of racing instead of the usual one. As a former Olympic medalist in the men's doubles (bronze, Calgary 1988), the Bavarian-born Staudinger knows better. Now in his sixth season as Canada's head luge coach, he has adjusted his program as his athletes have grown in experience and stature. It's been quite the process, he said.
With the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler came Own The Podium Funding, $2.8-million in quadrennial assistance. Luge was suddenly being counted on for a go at the podium. The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training accident altered everything, forcing Olympic and FIL officials to start the race further down the track instead of at the top, where athletes used their descent to reach speeds up to a devilish 150 km/h.
Canadians had never practised from the lower start, always using the top to gain every competitive advantage they could. It was a strategy that turned their Olympics upside-down while proving to be a learning experience – control what you can, accept the rest. Be better, and that they have.
"The first thing that is different compared to 2010 is we hadn't won medals," Staudinger said. "Now four years later, we actually have some medals at all levels. That's the first step. That gives you a different level of confidence for the coaching staff and most of all for the athletes.
"There has also been the implementation of certain steps that had proven themselves over many, many years in Europe and Germany," he added. "We implemented the same system, the same principles, put in some hard work and we moved year by year up to where we are now."
What they've done, without revealing their inner-most secrets, seems basic enough. The top sliders had their number of on-track runs increased on a daily basis. The sliders were told to meet tougher fitness standards that meant more time in the gym and weight room. Everything was done with a professional touch, assessed Staudinger, "To the way we race, the way we dress, the way we act, behave, warm-up. Much more attention to detail."
Gough is the shining example of that approach. The promising Calgary luger went to the 2010 Olympics hoping to do well and was clearly bothered by having the race shortened. She finished 18th and was vocal in her disappointment of not being allowed to slide from the top of the Whistler track. Staudinger was frank in his assessment of Gough and where she stood at that time.
"She was a good slider before but not good enough. She was a good athlete but not good enough so we made her a better athlete and a better slider" the coach explained. "And by adding those two components together she became more complete. Being quicker out of the start, suddenly she started winning World Cup medals and world championship medals."
At 26, Gough believes she has weathered the ebbs and flows of her sport and has learned "to roll with the punches." She is putting in all the above-and-beyond work, recently taking note of what her chief rivals were doing when Canada was allowed to train on the Germans' start ramp last June. "It provided some good feedback where we need to develop in comparison to how the Germans are training," she said, adding the Germans want to win as badly as ever.
While no one on the Canadian team has plans for showing off their Olympic medal just yet, the truth is winning one may be essential to what happens to the sport in Canada after Sochi. For this quadrennial, OTP will have pumped $3.25-million into luge with no assurances of equalling or bettering that in the years to come. In early October, the national team put itself up for sale to attract a sponsor to fill "a massive financial hole," according to Canadian Luge Association executive director Tim Farstad. Bringing home a medal from Russia would be an ideal validation of how far the luge program has come but, again, the coach is not about to make Olympic boasts.
Making his athletes better, more respected, now that's a whole different story.
"Knowing you've done the job right, you're in the game, that is the biggest difference for an athlete who wants to compete at the international level and win medals," Staudinger said. "We're getting there."