PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – It was late August and Alex Gough had just finished pushing around a bunch of weight, and here she was sitting outside a gym at Canada’s Olympic park, shaking her head as she thought back to the range of experiences she’d had at the Winter Games.
Gough laughed, then she rolled her eyes.
At 18, she was a wide-eyed teenager who “had no idea,” as she put it.
At 22 in Vancouver, she and the rest of the Canadian team had home-track advantage stripped when tragedy struck and organizers moved the start, changing the race entirely.
Four years after that, she had not one but two fourth place finishes, 0.433 seconds shy of that individual bronze, a hundredth off of the team podium. Less time than it takes to blink.
“Yeah, each Olympics, I’ve done better than the last,” she said, with shrug. “But hopefully this is a good experience. Hopefully this go-round is different.”
Oh yes indeed, this go-round was different. This go-round was historic.
On Tuesday night at Alpensia Sliding Centre, Gough did it. She became the first-ever Canadian to win an Olympic medal in luge. The first. Ever. Luge has been a sport at the Olympics since 1964.
The look on her face as she jumped into her coach’s arms the second she realized she’d done it was absolutely priceless. Sheer joy. And it was poetic, because the 30-year-old from Calgary had to be the person to break through and make this historic moment happen. It’s Gough, after all, who’s been responsible for so many firsts on that icy track.
It’s Gough who won this country’s first-ever World Cup luge race. It’s Gough who broke a 13-year German winning streak on the World Cup circuit in 2011. It’s Gough who became the first Canadian woman to stand atop a world championship podium for luge, something she accomplished twice.
The fact she virtually had an Olympic bronze medal stripped makes it all that much sweeter. The 2014 Canadian team was upgraded for a short time to bronze and then bumped back to fourth after the Court of Arbitration for Sport cited insufficient evidence against a pair of doping-accused Russians who’d come second.
She’d come so close to getting that monkey off Luge Canada’s back that “of course,” she said, it was the goal in South Korea.
Gough started this sport in the first place at age 13 because her mom thought she needed a winter activity.
“I didn’t know what luge was,” she said. “It was fun and I decided, ‘why not?’ It started as this neat sport to do on weeknights in the winter. My mom was happy it kept me occupied and out of the mall.”
But in Vancouver and in Sochi it was the source of heartbreak. In 2010, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed and died in training, and the response was to move the start, thus taking away any advantage the Canadians had. The first day of training, Gough had ranked top-5 in her times.
“I was right there. Then they moved the start down for the women and the doubles. That start was never designed to be raced from, ever,” said Gough, who finished finished 18th in 2010. “I personally didn’t respond the best. It was rough.”
Four years later, the feeling may have been worse.
“Really, it was devastating,” she said, of Sochi’s two-fourth place finishes and of the feeling they got robbed in the team event.
Then she said: “I think everybody’s really motivated to push it this year and see what we can do. And I know if I go out there and do my best runs, on any given day that would put me in that top three.”
Tuesday in Pyeongchang wasn’t just any given day, it was Gough’s day.
Her face lit up when she thought about nailing a run, almost like the feeling you’d get crushing a perfect drive off a tee.
“It’s fun when you get it right,” she said. “My goal is to get it right in South Korea.”
The right Canadian got it right, alright. And what a moment it was.