Great Britain’s greatest ever winter Olympian
In retaining her Olympic skeleton title in suspenseful style at PyeongChang 2018, four years on from her imperious gold in Sochi, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Yarnold became her country’s most successful Winter Olympian, the only athlete to have won two gold medals.
Following in golden footsteps
Picking up where her former team-mate and landlady Amy Williams left off, Yarnold dominated the women’s Olympic skeleton competition at the Sanki Sliding Centre at Sochi 2014, maintaining Team GB’s run of success in the event. She had been clear favourite going into the Winter Games, having dominated the FIBT World Cup that season and won the overall World Cup. And in Sochi, the 26-year-old from Kent was in a class of her own over the four runs, beating her American rival Noelle Pikus-Pace by a huge margin of 0.97 seconds.
She twice broke the course record, lowering it to 58.43 on her first run and then to 57.91 on her third. “For my fourth run I was completely relaxed,” she said afterwards. “I just set off and enjoyed it. It was a bit messy but I’m so happy to be here after having worked so hard for the last five years!”
Inspired by lewis
Yarnold is a product of the successful British skeleton programme that has placed an athlete on the podium at every Olympics since the event returned to the Olympic programme in 2002. She was inspired to become an Olympian after watching Denise Lewis win the heptathlon at Sydney 2000. In 2008, aged 19, she took up skeleton thanks to a talent identification programme for girls. Renting lodgings in Bath from 2010 Olympic champion Williams, who retired in January 2012, Yarnold learned from the best.
Fast track to success
There is no sliding track in the UK, which makes Yarnold’s success all the more impressive. “We can’t train on the ice for eight months of the year,” she explained. “Once we get to a track we get six training runs and that’s it. It’s different for other competitors who have tracks in their country and can use them hundreds of times. But it’s an advantage for us Brits because we learn quickly, we know what we’re doing and we have a big strong team.”
Flying the flag for team GB
It was no surprise to see Yarnold selected as the flagbearer for Great Britain at the Sochi 2014 Closing Ceremony, with the British athlete keen to become the spokeswoman for winter sports in her country. Her success at the Sanki Sliding Centre and the way she embraced the spirit of the Games is indeed sure to help inspire a new generation of Britons to try skeleton and other winter sports.
Coming back stronger
Yarnold followed up her Sochi triumph with victory in the European Championships in Igls (AUT) in February 2015 and the World Championships in Winterberg (GER) the following month, where she won by a comfortable 0.67 second margin from Jacqueline Lölling, the rising star of German skeleton. Meanwhile, the Briton scored five wins in eight events to finish just behind Austria’s Janine Flock in the 2014/15 World Cup standings.
“It doesn’t matter that I’ve won the Olympic gold or not; I just want to be a better athlete,” said Yarnold at the time. By the end of the year, however, she decided to take a one-year sabbatical, citing physical and mental fatigue, while also making it clear that she had every intention of coming back to defend her Olympic title at PyeongChang 2018.
Yarnold returned to competition for the 2016/17 season, yet failed to achieve any meaningful results in the lead-up to PyeongChang, aside from top-three finishes in World Cup events in Lake Placid in December 2016 and November 2017.
Team GB’s flagbearer once more at the Opening Ceremony of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games, Yarnold arrived at the Alpensia Sliding Centre hampered by a lung infection. Although fastest in the competition’s opening run, leading by 0.08 seconds over Lölling and 0.15 over Flock, she later said that she had come close to withdrawing. “My chest infection was stopping me from breathing. I just tried to get the second run down and then fight another day.”
The British slider could only manage the ninth-fastest time in that second run, and slipped to third in the standings, a tenth of a second behind the leader Lölling. “If it wasn’t for my physio Louise Turner telling me to go down again, I’m not sure I would be here,” recalled Yarnold. “I was dizzy, I couldn’t breathe. I have no idea what happened. I’ve been ill for a week.
The Briton moved back into contention on the third run, ending it just 0.02 seconds behind new competition leader Flock, and then pounced for the gold on the fourth and final run. In setting a new track record of 51.46 seconds and clocking a top speed of 127.9kmh, Yarnold retained her Olympic title by a comfortable margin of 0.45 seconds from Lölling, with her compatriot Laura Deas claiming the bronze from Flock.
“I resisted the pressure in the fourth run because I’m used to it, I’ve done it hundreds of times: being consistent, repeating performances, believing in myself,” said Yarnold, dubbed by her country’s media as “Great Britain's greatest ever Winter Olympian”, the only one to have retained an Olympic title.
Skeleton’s most decorated Olympian, she celebrated her triumph two months later with an open-top bus tour in her home county of Kent, with thousands of fans turning up to give her a hero’s welcome, many of them youngsters who were no doubt dreaming of one day emulating her.