Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Golden skeleton star Lizzy Yarnold in love with Russian winter

Flying the flag: Lizzy Yarnold speeds down the track at the appropriately named Sanki Sliding Center on her way to Winter Olympic gold, sparking celebrations on the podium ahead of today's medal ceremony

IT was the procession on ice, a high-speed dash to Britain's first gold of the Winter Olympics secured by Lizzy Yarnold, a 25-year-old farmer's daughter from Kent, and delivered with the emphatic certainty of a born champion.

With a lead of nearly half a second to bring into her final two runs, skeleton gold was Yarnold's to lose and she never for a moment looked like doing anything other than grabbing it with both hands.

In between her third and fourth runs she waved at the TV cameras and wished watchers Happy Valentine's day. For Britain this was a medal from Russia with love.

"I have shown the world what I am capable of. It is lovely it is Valentine's Day, there is lots of romance in the air," said Yarnold.

She won by nearly a second – almost double the margin of Amy Williams' gold medal winning run in Vancouver four years ago – from the American Noelle Pikus-Pace.

It was a commanding performance from an athlete blessed with the clearest of minds. Even in her celebrations in front of the small grandstand overlooking the finish where her parents and sisters were sitting, she remained in control, smiling and whooping with joy.

"Lizzy Yarnold is unique," said Williams. "She has something different within her psychologically. Within five years of starting she is an Olympic champion and that is pretty much unheard of in any sport."

Four years ago, during the previous Winter Games when Williams was taking her gold, Yarnold was ranked the 54th best shot putter in the UK. An aspiring but run-of-the-mill athlete, she was in the early stages of switching sports, taking the first steps from being a hopeful heptathlete to a sure-thing slider.

"It will not be an easy war," said Andi Schmid, British Skeleton's head coach, as the team set off for Russia.

For once in this stellar season the Austrian was wrong. Yarnold dominated the World Cup series and arrived here as the world No 1.

She dominated training and she has dominated the Olympics. Those around her have not noticed a shred of nerves throughout the week.

Yarnold was first on to the ice yesterday, a lead of 0.44sec banked from Thursday's two runs. She clapped her hands together and set off. It was the perfect start, her fastest of the final and she continued in that vein around the 17 curves that make up the 1500m track.

When she flashed across the finish line the clock stopped at 57.91sec. It was a new course record.

The only two women likely to challenge the Briton followed her on to the track and neither came close. Pikus-Pace crossed 0.78sec adrift and Elena Nikitina, the home favourite, was nearly a second behind despite the quickest start.

It left Yarnold an hour and a half until her final run, when the gold would finally be hers – barring coming off her sled.

There was still no sign of nerves for a first-time Olympian, smiling happily as she made her way back to the athletes' area and waving at the TV cameras. "I was just calm," she said.

The second run of 58.09 was more ragged but she hit her fastest speed of the final, 127.7kph, and it was enough to widen her final lead to 0.97sec.

It is the crowning glory to a modern sporting fairytale. Six years ago Yarnold had never heard of the sport. She turned up to a talent-spotting day in Bath run by UK Sport wanting to try out modern pentathlon.

She was put through a series of tests, not just being made to run, jump and try a push start, but also mental ones. The resulting letter that arrived at the family home offered her a skeleton trial and enclosed a DVD showing Shelley Rudman winning her silver medal in 2006 and talking about it on breakfast TV.

The early years were difficult, financially and physically, but in 2012 there were signs it was all coming together. She won a world championship bronze and her first World Cup race. This year it all clicked.

"Lizzy is very strong physically and mentally," said Schmid.

It is Yarnold's total recall that is a key element in her armoury. She is able to recite turn by turn the Sanki track from the moment she leaves the dressing room. She knew the curves and corners she raced around last night at 80mph off by heart.

Her medal is only the 10th Britain has collected in the 90-year history of the Winter Olympics and only the fifth won by an individual.

Britain's last five winter medals have all been claimed by women – the men have not won one since 1998.

Since skeleton returned to the Games in 2002, British women have won a medal on each occasion: Alec Coomber's bronze in Salt Lake, Rudman's silver in Turin, Williams' gold in Vancouver and now Yarnold.

There is no great secret to this consistency. Like much of Britain's Olympic success in the summer Games, it follows a process of rigorous planning and careful athlete identification and once the success starts there is a momentum; medals bring money brings medals bring more money.

Yarnold and Williams owe a great deal to Coomber and Rudman, who finished in 16th place last night. They succeeded despite their circumstances. Yarnold has succeeded because of them.

British Skeleton's funding for this Olympic cycle was a record £3.5m, having been £2.1m before Vancouver. Now it will rise again.

Elsewhere Britain's men's curlers recovered from 5-1 down after five ends to beat Denmark 8-6 last night. It was their third successive win and leaves them well placed to reach the semi-finals.

The women's team beat Japan 12-3 and are also on course for the last four.

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