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Whistler to help Canadians size up Olympic luge hopes

National team eager to build off last winter's world championship results during World Cup

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It will be the first big test of the season for Canadian luge team members as they welcome fellow competitors this weekend to the site of the most recent Olympics and world championships.

The national squad, which is going into Sochi's Games with the potential to bring back Olympic medals for perhaps the first time in the country's history, will be using this weekend's FIL World Cup races at the Whistler Sliding Centre to help size up its chances of reaching the podium in February.

The doubles and men's races take place Friday, Dec. 6, and the women's and team relay events are scheduled for Saturday.

The Canadians made a statement when hosting the world championships in the resort last winter, and not just by finishing as the only country besides Germany to capture multiple medals.

Rather, it was the all-around great performances by all of the sliders who will wear the Maple Leaf at Russia's Sliding Center Sanki in the Olympics.

Alex Gough brought home a women's bronze, Arianne Jones and Kim McRae joined her in the top eight, Sam Edney posted a career-best fifth-place finish, and the doubles duo of Tristan Walker and Justin Snith did the same by placing fourth.

And then there was the team relay silver that showed Canada has truly established itself as one of the sport's world powers.

This weekend's races will act as a barometer to see if they've remained at the top.

"That result in Whistler is still fresh in my mind," said Edney, who was just .021 seconds off the men's podium during the 2013 worlds. "I know it's right there. If I can close the gap on Felix (Loch, reigning Olympic and world champ) ... then I can carry that confidence into the second half and just know that we've done all the right things over the summer.

"It's going to mean a lot to see what the result is."

The results have been a mixed bag for Canada during the first three World Cup races of the season. Gough returned to the podium for a bronze at Lillehammer, Norway, to begin the campaign and also posted a fourth-place result at Winterberg, Germany, this past weekend. Walker and Snith will arrive in Whistler on the strength of a season-high fifth-place finish, which came despite a first-run mistake that may have cost them a spot on the podium.

"I have to be happy with a personal-best finish in Winterberg, but I am not satisfied," Walker said in a release. "This shows us we are there and can definitely push for the podium."

Though Edney's season began with a 20th-place result, he's moved up to fifth in the season rankings after finishing sixth in back-to-back races at Winterberg and Igls, Austria. The relay foursome of Gough, Edney, Walker and Snith also grabbed silver at Igls two weeks ago, and might have won at Winterberg if they hadn't been disqualified.

Gough and Edney had put Canada ahead of eventual winners Italy through the first two legs, but Walker and Snith ended up leaving the start too early, putting the team out of the race.

Edney said they could still be encouraged by the team performance even if the official result went down as a 'DSQ.'

"It's good that this happened now instead of at the Games. We'll learn from it," said the two-time Olympian. "I think (leading the race) showed the strength of each individual sled on the team right now. Knowing that, that gives us confidence heading into the weekend."

Edney said there's a different feeling for him as these Olympics approach compared to the lead-up to the 2006 and 2010 Games. Having already qualified for Sochi, there's less pressure to be thinking ahead and more time to focus on his ultimate goal for the season.

"My mind is at ease and I'm just enjoying sliding," said the 29-year-old. "I'm not having to worry about qualifying and I think that's making a big difference in the way I'm sliding right now."

The Germans are always the favourites in any race, and reigning women's world champ Natalie Geisenberger has rattled off three straight wins to start the season. German sleds have won all three doubles races as well.

But the top step of the podium has been less predictable in men's and relay racing. There have been three different winners in three men's races and World Cup leader David Möller of Germany — the only slider to be on the podium at each stop — hasn't won any of them.

Italy's Dominik Fischnaller and Loch won the first two, and German 20-year-old David Eibler was a surprise winner at Winterberg in his first-ever World Cup start. He'll get the second start of his career in Whistler.

Russia is also expected to keep some of its best medal hopefuls at home to train at the Olympic venue during the World Cup tour's two-race North American swing.

Races get underway at 3 p.m. both days. Tickets can be purchased at www.whistler.com.

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