Yesterday morning Lizzy Yarnold lay in bed and listened to The Archers. Then she got up and prepared for her first day as an Olympic champion, climaxing with her stepping on to the podium in the Medals Plaza last night to receive her prize and watch the Union Jack raised on the balmy shores of the Black Sea.
She cannot have had many better days in her young life. The sun shone – this is the warmest Winter Games on record – and she smiled and chatted her way through it, all on a few snatched hours of sleep at the Mountain Village on a ridge high above Rosa Khutor, an hour’s drive from the main Olympic Park.
As Yarnold revelled in her golden moment, a few hundred metres away, inside the speckled rectangle that is the Iceberg Skating Palace, Elise Christie’s Olympics was taking another terrible turn. For the second time at these Games the Scot, Team GB’s best short-track speed skater, was thrown out of an event. This time she was penalised for stepping off the track marginally before the finish line in the heats of the 1500m. She would have qualified for the semi-finals without the referee’s intervention.
Whereas Thursday’s disqualification in the final of the 500m was a clear enough infringement, this seemed cruelly harsh. “I’m gobsmacked,” said Christie. “I expected the decision the other day, but today I have no idea what’s going on.”
Christie and Yarnold both arrived here with realistic ambitions of a medal. They are young women – at 25 Yarnold is two years the senior – with contrasting backgrounds: the Kentish grammar-school girl who grew up on a farm; and the girl from Livingston, one of Scotland’s characterless new towns that litter the Central Belt, who left home at 15 and school soon after to try and make it as a skater.
Yarnold is big and strong, Christie small and nimble, but they are supposed to have one thing in common, a mental toughness that makes the difference between winning and losing, and teaches how to cope with both. Yarnold has it in spades, and had even written a dissertation on the subject. Just how much Christie has will become clear in the next few days.
“I’m finding it quite hard,” she admitted yesterday, fighting back tears. She has also been the victim of a nasty attack on Twitter from South Korean skating fans, blaming her for bringing down Park Seung-Hi in Thursday’s 500m final and denying her a shot at the gold medal. It disrupted Christie’s preparations for the 1500m race and upset her, but those close to her insist she has the mental strength to put that desperate week behind her. The next target is the heats of the 1,000m, her main event, on Tuesday.
For Yarnold, yesterday could not have held a greater contrast, yet there were still glimpses of the single-mindedness that has taken her from that first fearful slide on a skeleton to an Olympic gold in the space of five fast-tracked years.
What, she was asked at one point, did you do last night? There was a celebration: after snatching three slices of pepperoni pizza in the Village she took the cable car down to Rosa Khutor, where the rest of the team, her family and Team GB officials were waiting to celebrate. A resounding cheer greeted her arrival.
But prior to that she had had one more job to do. Before the party came the homework; she wrote up her track notes from the evening’s runs. “I’m still quite particular,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about all four runs; obviously I got a track record in the third run, the fourth run I was just having fun. But there is still so much to improve on. So I’ve written my track notes and finished all that off.
“It has certainly sunk in a lot more than it had last night. It was a really, really crazy time after that fourth run. When I came up the outrun and saw the No 1 it was a massive relief and so many emotions, seeing mum and dad and the whole family there. I’m just so, so pleased.”
One of the more remarkable elements of Yarnold’s triumph was how unaffected she appeared to be by the mounting expectation. She arrived here as Britain’s best hope, and that increased as she dominated training. But she said afterwards: “I didn’t really the feel the pressure as such anyway – certainly not other people’s pressure or expectation.”
Christie is under pressure now, more so than before in her burgeoning career. Four years ago as a teenager she was in Vancouver for the experience; now she is here to win a medal. She has made two errors, yesterday’s a minute slip. As she and Yarnold are all too aware, there is no margin for that at this level.
Yarnold has shown she can handle the pressure. Can Christie follow suit?