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Focus is final key for front runner

LIZZY Yarnold always knew she wanted to be an athlete but it was not until five years ago that she 'discovered' her sport.

 Lizzy Yarnold of Great Britain has secured a potentially decisive advantage for today's  skeleton final.
Lizzy Yarnold of Great Britain has secured a potentially decisive advantage for today's skeleton final.

Later today her unstinting self-belief should be rewarded with an Olympic gold medal.

Making predictions at the Winter Olympics is a dangerous business but Yarnold could not be in a better position heading into the final two runs of the women's skeleton.

She arrived at these Games as the hottest British favourite since Torvill and Dean, who performed their straight-sixes Bolero routine in Sarajevo 30 years ago today.

The 25-year-old has dominated the World Cup season, making the podium in seven out of eight races and winning gold on four occasions.

She has been the quickest in almost every practice session and was fastest in both the opening runs, meaning she will take a 0.44 second advantage over American Noelle Pikus-Pace into the third and fourth.

One rival described her yesterday as "unstoppable", another added she was "flawlessly good".

Four years ago Amy Williams took a 0.30 second advantage into the concluding runs and Yarnold will aim to follow her landlady's lead - and secure GB's fourth consecutive Olympic skeleton medal.

"I don't feel the pressure. I've not been thinking about other people's expectations because I've got such high expectations of myself," said Yarnold. "As soon as I stepped on to the start line my coach really settled me, and once I started everything felt so natural - I loved it.

"You will never have a perfect run because it happens so fast, you just need to react to it. I've been trying lots of different things in training and I've brought that through into competition. The first and second runs are the fastest I've ever gone."

Pikus-Pace, Yarnold's closest rival this season, conceded she would be "difficult to catch", although stopped short of saying silver is now the limit of her ambition, after coming fourth in Vancouver in 2010.

"She's pretty far ahead and it's a very large margin in our sport, but it's not out of reach," she said. "Lizzy is a born competitor and she knows how to handle the pressure. She will be ready to throw down some good times again. Any time you are ahead it is yours to lose, but everyone is going to be chasing you."

British Skeleton's performance director Nigel Laughton says he believes Yarnold's approach makes her the ultimate professional.

"She will come out with everything to prove because it's a good lead, but not totally insurmountable," he added.

"She's had a great season and she's not done a lot differently at the Olympics. She's very good at switching on and off, she is so focused when she needs to be and she's delivering because of it."

You could not get more different athletes than the intense Yarnold and the laidback James Woods who battled through pain, only to be rewarded with a battered and bruised body.

However, Woods had no complaints after claiming fifth behind his "four best mates" - in the ski slopestyle final at Rosa Khutor.

It soon became clear that he and coach Pat Sharples had been playing down the hip injury picked up in training last week - which he later claimed would have forced him to withdraw from any other competition.

Joss Christensen took gold ahead of American teammates Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper, while Woods, 22, recorded runs of 86.60 and 78.40, well down on his personal best, and was pipped to fourth by Norway's Andreas Haatveit. However, it means Great Britain's best record in the four slopestyle events across ski and snowboarding reads sixth, third, seventh and fifth - unprecedented success on snow at the Winter Olympics. "It's always a little disappointing when you can't perform at your best, but I'm very proud to be here in such an immense final," said Woods, now Britain's most successful male Olympian on snow.

"Any other occasion I wouldn't be near my skis so I cannot be unhappy with this - it's the world stage. Fifth in the Olympics, with four of my best mates in front of me, it is great."

Woods has certainly been embracing the Olympic experience in Sochi, where slopestyle has proved a hit, rewarding the decision to include it in these Games.

"Some things hurt more than others, that was in the back of my mind. I tried to forget about it, think about why I'm here," he added. "There were certainly a couple of times where I thought 'I'm not sure I can carry on'.

"But the doctors, the physios, my coach Pat and everyone back in the UK have been so behind me, it'd have been pretty rubbish for me to wuss out now. "I certainly didn't bring my best game to the table but I'm incredibly proud to be here."

Woods, though, insists he will be back - and believes the youthful British team could be ready to dominate in four years' time with Katie Summerhayes, Jamie Nicholls and Rowan Cheshire all in their late teens and early 20s.

"I know the Olympic ideal is about coming here and taking part but we'd all like to see a little bit of hardware," he continued. "We've got some incredibly talented people, real young guys, and some real future stars."

l Samsung are a proud partner of Team GB and are supporting the Samsung Galaxy Team. To meet the team, see exclusive content and win amazing prizes, including once-in-a-lifetime winter sport training sessions with the Samsung Galaxy Team athletes, visit www.samsung.com/uk/sochi2014

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