By Nicola Kenton

  • Reigning champion Lizzy Yarnold looking to defend her title, as Laura Deas makes Olympic debut
  • Great Britain are the only nation to win a medal every time skeleton has featured at the Olympic Games
  • XXIII Olympic Winter Games begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea on February 9
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – With the 2018 Winter Games now just days away, in the second of a series of close-ups on some of Team GB’s brightest medal hopes in South Korea, we focus first on defending champion Lizzy Yarnold and debutant Laura Deas who will be hoping to continue Great Britain’s streak of winning a medal in the women’s Skeleton at every Olympic Games since its’ inception.

 

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How does it work?

Skeleton is a relatively simple sport. It involves a small sled, a running start and a frozen track; however the execution needed to perform at the highest level is immense. Taking the wrong line, hitting the side of the track or being late out of an exit could be the difference between finishing at the top or the bottom of the field. The athletes travel in the prone position (head-first) on the sled and can experience g-forces of up to 5G while travelling at speeds in excess of 80mph. Every track is different but all are over 1000m long, have a series of curves and an average gradient of over 8%. During the World Cup season, the competition consists of two runs which take place in one day; all of the athletes complete the first run with only the top 20 taking part in the second. Whereas, the schedule slightly differs at the Olympic Games, as there are four runs over a two-day period.

GB’s Skeleton Olympic History

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Great Britain has great pedigree in this event and it has been a constant source of medals for the team. Skeleton featured at the 1924 and 1948 Winter Olympic Games – however there were only men’s events – and Great Britain won a bronze medal at each Games. The sport was reintroduced to the Winter Olympics in 2002 and a women’s event was also included, since this has happened GB have picked up medals in all four Olympic Games.

Alex Coomber won a bronze medal in Salt Lake City, Shelley Rudman claimed silver in 2006 and in the last two editions, Amy Williams and Lizzy Yarnold have both won gold medals. The two British athletes will be looking to maintain this streak but Yarnold is also seeking to become the first British athlete to defend a Winter Olympic title and the first Skeleton athlete to defend their Olympic title.

Yarnold aims for historic double

When she claimed the Olympic title in Sochi, Yarnold’s margin of success was the largest in Olympic history at 0.97 seconds. The following season the skeleton racer completed a career grand slam by winning gold at both the European and World Championships, breaking the track record twice at the Worlds in Winterberg. The Brit decided not to compete in the 2015-16 season due to burnout and returned last year, where she claimed a silver medal in her second World Cup race and picked up a bronze medal in the 2017 World Championships.

Having suffered from sporadic spells of dizziness throughout her career, Yarnold found out in September 2017 that she had inner-ear damage and vestibular problems. The exposure to high G-forces and high speeds on the track meant that her balance and orientation were impacted after she had competed.

At the end of last year, Yarnold spoke to the Telegraph about how tough the sport can be:

“I’ve learned to stay calm. It’s like relaxed aggression, you have to keep your head. You need pinpoint focus, you need your peripheral vision filtering constantly. When you’re on the track, you’re not just using your eyes, you are using the sense of smell, the pressure in your chest, you’re feeling the G-forces in your neck and chest and arms.”

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“It’s a real orchestra of information. I hate to say the cliché of four more years’ experience, but I have learned so much. It hasn’t always been easy. But physically – regardless of those issues – I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been.”

The reigning Olympic champion returned to World Cup action in November picking up a third place finish in Lake Placid, she continued this with eighth place in Park City before her form dipped. In her next four races, she finished in 23rd, 13th, 16th and 19th place but Yarnold began to find her form, once again, in the final two races where she finished ninth and fourth. In the standings, the Brit was ranked ninth in the World Cup rankings and 12th in overall World rankings enough to secure her Olympic berth.

Deas ready for Olympic debut

The other Great Britain athlete competing in Pyeongchang is Laura Deas. The 29-year-old came through the Girls4Gold programme and made her debut at the World Cup in the 2014-15 season where she claimed two podium places and finished fifth overall. The following season, the Brit won her first World Cup race in Altenberg, picking up a podium in Lake Placid and ended the World Cup season in 7th; while 2016-17 saw her finish in 6th place overall. Deas has competed in three World Championships with her best result coming in 2015, where she was seventh; in 2016 she finished 11th and last year she ended up in 10th place.

This year’s World Cup saw very consistent results for the Brit. Across the eight races, she only ended up outside the top 12 once and that was in Königssee, where she didn’t make the second run having finished in 23rd place. Deas had five top 10 finishes with fifth in Lake Placid and Park City, seventh in Winterberg, eighth in Altenberg and sixth in Innsbruck – which doubled as the European Championships where the Brit was just off of the podium in fourth place. In the IBSF standings Deas finished seventh in World Cup and was ranked eighth overall, confirming her Olympic place. After her selection for Pyeongchang was confirmed, Deas spoke to Team GB:

 “I’m very proud that I’m going to be representing my country at an Olympics. I’ve been in the sport for nine years now and this has always been my goal. It’s been on the horizon for a very long time so to actually be here is very cool and a very big honour. I’m going to PyeongChang with the intention of winning a medal.”

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“That’s been the aim through my whole career and that won’t change now that I’m here. I know that the people that I’m racing against at the Games are the same people I race against week in, week out on the World Cup circuit. I’ve beaten all of them at different times and I know that, if I put in my best performance, I can be on the podium.”

Who is the competition?

For the past two seasons the winner of the World Cup has been German Jacqueline Lölling. This season she won four out of the eight races, picked up a silver medal at Innsbruck for the European Championships and was the World Champion in 2017. Hot on her heels is team-mate Tina Hermann, who won the 2015-16 World Cup and the 2016 World Championships and although she did not win any races this season, she was exceptionally consistent in her results finishing on the podium five times. Austrian Janine Flock is another name to look out for, she finished sixth in the World Cup standings, won races in Lake Placid and St Moritz and was the silver medallist at the 2016 World Championships. Finally, Canadian slider Elisabeth Vathje is another consistent slider having finished on the podium four times and third in the rankings.

 

The first runs of the women’s Olympic Skeleton campaign in Pyeongchang begin on Friday 16th February, with the final runs the following day at the Olympic Sliding Centre.

 

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