Lizzy Yarnold will slide for her place in Olympic history in the mountains above Rosa Khutor on Friday after establishing what her closest rival has described as a “large margin” at the half-way stage of the women’s skeleton competition.
If she can maintain her 0.44 second advantage over American rival Noelle Pikus-Pace over the final two runs at the Sanki Sliding Center she will become the fourth consecutive Olympic women’s skeleton medallist from Great Britain.
Yarnold produced two solid runs to ease away from Russia’s Elena Nikitina, who was only 0.05 down on Yarnold’s mark after the first run, and Pikus-Pace, who has been struggling all week with a long-standing back injury.
Yarnold’s lead is bigger than the 0.3 second advantage Amy Williams took into the final day of skeleton competition in Vancouver four years ago, and Williams went on to set a new track record in her third run and ultimately claim gold by over half a second.
Pikus-Pace, with whom Yarnold shared the eight World Cup titles this season, said: “Lizzy is pretty far ahead - it’s a large margin in our sport but it’s definitely not out of reach.
“Lizzy knows how to handle that pressure. She has done it all season and she will come out to be competitive. But any time you’re in front it’s yours to lose and there is always someone chasing you.”
The 25-year-old Yarnold will follow the same careful pre-race process which carried her to the overall World Cup title this season and will be confident of handling the increased pressure having nailed her first run on Thursday in a time of 58.43 seconds.
Nikitina was only marginally behind but fell away on the second section of her second run to go third, over half a second behind Yarnold, while veteran Pikus-Pace picked up a place after a much-improved second slide.
Yarnold, who said she relaxed in the hour leading up to her slide by listening to ‘deep house’, said: “I think was relaxed from the start. As soon as I got to the track I was on very familiar ground, but as soon as I stepped on the start-line I was aware there were a lot more people around.
“But when I bent down to grip my sled my coach told me to go for it. It’s the same noise and terms he’s used all year and it really settled me. Once I started on the sled it felt so natural and I loved it.”
Yarnold was cheered at the finish line by her ‘Yarnie Army’ fan club including mum and dad Judith and Clive, her two sisters Katie and Charlotte, and her boyfriend James Roach who works with the technical team for British Bobsleigh.
But such is Yarnold’s perfectionist nature she pronounced herself happy but far from satisfied with her run, and said she intended to study video footage with her coaches in order to establish the bends where can cut her time further.
Yarnold added: “”You’ll never have a perfect run and it’is about knowing how to react and being a very fast-thinking athlete.
“I will go back tonight and do my stretching and eat lots of good food and do the normal athlete thing and try to improve it again tomorrow.”
Yarnold’s Great Britain team-mate, Turin silver medallist Shelley Rudman, struggled with the technical Sochi track and finished her two runs a full 1.90secs behind Yarnold in 11th place.
Rudman’s second run was 0.13 seconds improved on her first, but the time discrepancy between herself and the top three means her hopes of a second Olympic medal are effectively over.
Rudman said: “I didn’t get curve 14 on the first run and it bled my time. For the second run I pushed a lot faster and made up a bit of time, so I’m happy.”
The focus, however, remains on the final chapter of the rivalry between Yarnold and Pikus-Pace, who has announced her intention to retire at the end of the Games no matter the colour of the medal that hangs round her neck.
Most of Britain hopes it will be silver, but Pikus-Pace dispensed a warning to those eager to assume that the margin of Yarnold’s lead at the half-way stage makes the gold medal a formality.
“I’ve been at the National Championships where on the second day I was six tenths back and I still won the race so anything is possible,” added Pikus-Pace.
“It just depends how she’s going to handle the pressure overnight and how much she’s got left for the final day.”
Short track speed skater Elise Christie missed out on a medal when she was disqualified in the women’s 500 metres final at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Starting in lane three, after a false start by Korea’s Park Seung-Hi, Christie came flying out at the start of the race but then appeared to cut across the line of Italy’s Arianna Fontana, taking both of them out.
Fontana’s fall also took down Park, leaving China’s Li Jianrou to skate away unopposed to the gold medal at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
Park and Christie picked themselves up and the 23-year-old Scot, whose speciality is the 1000 metres, overtook Park to cross the line second but, inevitably, she was swiftly dropped to fourth place by the judges.