Winter Olympics 2014: ‘As good as it gets’ – British skeleton bob hope Lizzy Yarnold roars ahead to set up golden day

The Brit will head down the track two more times tomorrow afternoon in her bid to win gold

Sochi

From the British quarters in the Olympic Mountain Village, the top of the scoreboard at the Sanki Sliding Centre a little way down the hillside is visible. It will make good reading for Lizzy Yarnold when she wakes up on Friday morning. When she gets up on Saturday morning it may well make perfect reading.

Yarnold takes a lead worth nearly half a second over the American Noelle Pikus-Pace into Friday evening’s final two runs of the skeleton. This is a dangerous sport where disaster is only ever one minor slip, one blinked lack of concentration away – Pikus-Pace lost what seemed a certain medal four years ago on the final run – but on the evidence of Thursday’s two sorties down the course a British gold, only the 10th in the 90 years of the Winter Olympics, will be won on Friday – even if it will not be placed around Yarnold’s neck until Saturday evening.

All medal ceremonies take place at a special venue down in the main Olympic Park, so evening medals won in the mountains – an hour up the road – are not handed out until the following day. It is, of course, premature to fetch the Union flag from the Medal Plaza locker, although a prudent planner might at least check that one is in stock because Yarnold will take some stopping.

The 25-year-old from Kent arrived here as the best in the world and has continued in that vein since the practice runs began. She started the final as the woman to beat. Britain’s Alex Coomber had done likewise in 2002 only to finish third and collect a what-might-have-been bronze.

 

The gold medal is hers to lose. The main danger will simply be the occasion – it is a prize that she desperately wants, and has wanted ever since her days as a run-of-the-mill heptathlete. Now it is so close, can she keep the steely, obsessive focus that has marked her progress up the world rankings?

“It’s going to give Lizzy so much confidence,” said Amy Williams, who won gold in this event four years ago, Britain’s last Winter Olympic success. “There is no reason she can’t win gold.”

Williams stressed the need for consistency and the comforting element for Yarnold, a naturally confident athlete, is that consistency has marked her season. She finished on the podium in seven of the eight World Cup races, her sole absence coming when she needed only to cross the finish line to clinch the title and the world No 1 spot.

That ranking allowed her to choose her starting place for the first run on Thursday. She settled on second, allowing Pikus-Pace to set the pace. The American world No 2 stopped the clock at 58.68sec. Moments later, Yarnold had lowered that by a quarter of a second. She gave a cheery wave to the crowd and disappeared inside the clubhouse.

One by one her usual rivals failed to challenge her, including Shelley Rudman, who was to end the day 11th, nearly one and a half seconds outside the medals. There was, though, a known unknown; the whisper all week around Sanki had been “watch out for the Russians”. The three home hopes have been based here for most of the season, practising run after run down what is the longest course in the world.

On Thursday night, the Australians protested to the sport’s governing body, claiming the home sliders had an unfair advantage because foreigners had not been allowed to spend as much time on the course. It was briskly dismissed.

This is not a fast track – the faster the better suits Yarnold – and familiarity with its twists, turns and 19 corners offers an advantage. But what sits in Britain’s favour is that having no home course requires an ability to adapt; Yarnold in particular is able to programme the curves and contours into her memory.

Elena Nikitina delivered the surprise run that wasn’t really anything of the sort. She recorded a first run only 0.05sec slower than Yarnold. Second time around, though, the Russian slowed down – as did Yarnold but only by 0.03sec on her first run. Pikus-Pace picked up her speed to reclaim second place and is 0.44sec behind Yarnold.

“It’s a nice place to be,” said Nigel Laughton, Britain’s skeleton performance director. “In this sport it’s a good lead but it’s not insurmountable and she needs to be on the mark. She’s an ultimate professional and she will come out with everything to prove.”

Yarnold was in a good place. “I was relaxed as soon as I got to the track,” she said. “Once I started, everything felt so natural and I loved it. It’s as good as it gets really.” It might be even better on Friday.


Watch the opening ceremony of the most lavish games in history, costing an estimated $51bn

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