Yarnold continues rich skeleton tradition for Team GB

15 February 2014 / 07:13

What is it about well-spoken British girls that makes them want to propel themselves headfirst down an icy chute without fear for life or limb?

Lizzy Yarnold joined a growing cast yesterday as she won the Olympic women's skeleton title high up in the Caucasus Mountains to continue an unlikely domination of the most unusual sport.

Yarnold outclassed her rivals to win by nearly a second over the four runs – reaching speeds of 80mph on her trusty sled Mervyn, her chin just two inches off the ice and a watching nations' hearts in their mouth.

The last time Britain won at these Games so stylishly and comprehensively was exactly 30 years previously, when Torvill and Dean struck ice dance gold on Valentine's Day in Sarajevo.

Yarnold's win means Great Britain have now won four consecutive Olympic skeleton medals, from Alex Coomber's 2002 bronze to Shelley Rudman's silver in Turin and the gold won by Amy Williams four years ago in Vancouver.

Not many schoolgirls grow up dreaming of being a skeleton slider but only cycling and modern pentathlon can claim a similar domination of an event in Olympic sport and, if the record continues in Pyeongchang, it might just be time to declare it our national sport.

Russia have spent millions in pursuit of success here, even building a secret mountainside push start facility, in the manner of all good Bond villains, in a bid to find the competitive edge.

Back home it's a bit more belt and braces, a 150-metre push start facility at the University of Bath the closet thing to a home track.

Yarnold is the latest graduate of UK Sport's annual search that aims to connect talented but not world-class athletes to new sports.

She would have been an ideal muse for John Betjeman, a schoolgirl sportswoman in the mould of Joan Hunter Dunn, she excelled at horse riding, netball and athletics as a pupil at Maidstone Grammar School.

"I have worked so hard to get into this position and I am just so proud that my dreams have come true," she said.

"I would have been proud of winning a medal and now I have got the gold, it is unexplainable. I am so proud of myself but I always have high expectations of myself.

"I always secretly intended to come to Sochi. That was always my dream and my goal but to win the whole race is far beyond my expectations.

"I wanted to do myself justice and I can't believe I did it. It's also lovely as it's Valentine's Day, so it has something romantic about it as well.

"My mum and dad and my sisters are here and I couldn't have done it without them or the Team GB skeleton team. I'm Olympic champion."

Every Olympian here is ready to tell you about 'their journey' but Yarnold's is truly remarkable for no other reason that it's speed. In less than six years she gone from total novice to Olympic champion.

Silver medallist Noelle Pikus-Pace and Russia's Elena Nikitina, who took bronze, admitted they simply couldn't live with the nerveless Yarnold's pace.

"Lizzy in that form…I was in a battle for silver," said Pikus-Pace.

"It started such a long time ago, I was an athlete at the age of 13 with my parents driving me around the country every night for training. I wouldn’t have got here without them," added Yarnold.

Watching and speaking with Yarnold these past few days you would have been forgiven for thinking she never had any doubts about her success.

Quickest on every training run, quickest on every competition run, there was even the intoxicating air of formality about her win that reminded you of those sacred fabled days of two summers ago.

While publicly saying all the right things, she finally admitted last night that she wasn't always as nerveless as it appeared.

"I have cried privately, the pressure has been hard," she added. "I come from a heptathlon background so I am very used to that overnight feeling, things can be won and lost then.

"In the morning I went to watch the skiing events and I had a great time and reminded myself how many good friends I've made over the last five years and how I couldn't do this without them.

"I have no idea what will happen in the future. I love training, I am a dedicated athlete and I am an athlete through and through, that is all I know."

Whether she continues in the sport or not, Yarnold's coach Andi Schmid is already looking ahead, with a production line of promising sliders coming through his ranks, proving that facilities will only get you so far unless you have visionary coaches to deliver on a strategy.

"It is an amazing feeling. Four years after Amy and now this and another name on the gold. It is a great achievement for British Skeleton and the individual athlete," he said.

"In my head I am thinking what did we achieve with four different names on the podium in four Olympics? The programme is producing great results and to have another incredible athlete again on the podium is phenomenal."

As Yarnold celebrated last night with a travelling entourage of friends and family – who had dubbed themselves the Yarny Army – organisers let off a flurry of fireworks, briefly sending startled security guards scurrying to action.

But don't expect the girl who relaxes knitting and listening to The Archers to enjoy too much après-slide. She is probably already planning the next challenge.

From James Toney, Sportsbeat, in Sochi

© Sportsbeat 2014