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Skeleton crew extend remarkable run

WHAT is it about well-spoken British women that makes them want to propel themselves headfirst down an icy chute without fear for life or limb?

 Britain's Anna Sloan and Vicki Adams. Picture: Getty Images
Britain's Anna Sloan and Vicki Adams. Picture: Getty Images

Lizzy Yarnold joined a growing cast yesterday as she took the Olympic women's skeleton title high up in the Caucasus Mountains to continue an unlikely domination of the most unusual sport.

Yarnold outclassed her rivals to win by nearly a second over the four runs - reaching speeds of 80mph on her trusty sled Mervyn, her chin just two inches off the ice as a nation watched on nervously on television.

The last time Britain won so stylishly and comprehensively at the Winter Games came exactly 30 years earlier when Torvill and Dean struck ice dance gold on Valentine's Day in Sarajevo.

Yarnold's triumph means Great Britain's women have now won four consecutive Olympic skeleton medals, from Alex Coomber's 2002 bronze to Shelley Rudman's silver in Turin and the gold won by Amy Williams four years ago in Vancouver.

Not many schoolgirls grow up dreaming of being a skeleton slider, but only cycling and modern pentathlon can claim similar domination of an Olympic event. If the record continues in four years' time in Pyeongchang, it might just be time to declare it our national sport.

Russia have spent millions in pursuit of success here, even building a secret mountainside push-start facility, in the manner of all good Bond villains, in a bid to find the competitive edge.

Back home it's a bit more belt and braces; a 150-metre push start facility at the University of Bath is the closest thing to a home track. Yarnold is the latest graduate of UK Sport's annual search that aims to connect athletes who are talented but not world-class to new sports.

She would have been an ideal muse for John Betjeman, a schoolgirl sportswoman in the mould of Joan Hunter Dunn. Yarnold excelled at horse riding, netball and athletics and was the head girl at her local grammar school.

"I have worked so hard to get into this position and I am just so proud that my dreams have come true," the 25-year-old said after her victory. "I would have been proud of winning a medal and now I have got the gold it is unexplainable. I am so proud of myself. I always secretly intended to come to Sochi. That was always my dream and my goal but to win the whole race is far beyond my expectations.

"It started such a long time ago. I was an athlete at the age of 13 with my parents driving me around the country every night for training. I wouldn't have got here without them."

Every Olympian here is ready to tell you about their "journey" but Yarnold's is truly remarkable by the way of its speed. In less than six years she has gone from total novice to Olympic champion.

The silver medallist, the American Noelle Pikus-Pace, and Russia's Elena Nikitina, who took bronze, admitted they simply couldn't live with the nerveless Yarnold's pace on the track either. "Lizzy in that form . . . I was in a battle for silver," Pikus-Pace said.

Watching and speaking with Yarnold these past few days you could have been forgiven for thinking she never had any doubts about her success.

She was quickest on every training run, quickest on every competition run, and there was even an intoxicating air of formality about her win that reminded you of the Olympics in London.

While publicly saying all the right things, Yarnold finally admitted last night that she wasn't always as nerveless as she appeared.

She said: "I have cried privately, the pressure has been hard. "I come from a heptathlon background so I am very used to that overnight feeling [in mid-competition]. Things can be won and lost then.

"In the morning I went to watch the skiing events and I had a great time and reminded myself how many good friends I've made over the last five years and how I couldn't have done this without them. I've no idea what will happen in the future. I love training, I am a dedicated athlete and I am an athlete through and through, that is all I know."

Whether she continues in the sport or not, Yarnold's coach, Andi Schmid is already looking ahead, with a production line of promising sliders coming through his ranks, proving facilities will only get you so far if you do not have visionary coaches to deliver on a strategy. "It is an amazing feeling - four years after Amy and another gold. It is a great achievement for British Skeleton and the individual athlete," the Austrian Schmid said.

"The programme is producing great results and to have another incredible athlete again on the podium is phenomenal."

As Yarnold celebrated last night with a travelling entourage of friends and family who had dubbed themselves the Yarny Army. A flurry of fireworks was set off, briefly sending startled security guards scurrying to action.

But don't expect the woman who relaxes knitting and listening to The Archers to enjoy too much après-slide. She is probably already planning the next challenge.

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