KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Lizzy Yarnold is feeling no pressure, not even as an Olympic rookie leading midway through the women’s skeleton competition.
And Noelle Pikus-Pace knows that will make Yarnold even tougher to catch. Yarnold and Pikus-Pace held the top spots after Thursday’s opening two runs at the Sanki Sliding Center, a predictable result since they combined to win every World Cup race this season. Yarnold’s time was 1 minute, 56.89 seconds, putting her 0.44 seconds ahead of Pikus-Pace entering Friday’s final two heats.
“It’s a pretty big margin, to be honest with you,” Pikus-Pace said. “Anything’s possible. Of course it’s doable. But it’s a pretty big margin and Lizzy laid down two solid runs today and it shows.”
That wasn’t necessarily a concession speech.
But if Pikus-Pace’s career is to end with Olympic gold, she might need Yarnold to make a mistake or two along the way. And Yarnold — the World Cup champion this season — hardly sounded like someone who’s going to be overwhelmed by gold-medal pressure.
“I was just totally in my zone,” Yarnold said.
If she stays there, Britain will get its second straight gold medal in the event. Amy Williams won at Vancouver in 2010 before retiring; she’s now Yarnold’s landlord, renting her apartment to her possible successor as Olympic champion.
Pikus-Pace, of Eagle Mountain, Utah, posted a combined time of 1:57.33, 0.11 seconds ahead of Russia’s Elena Nikitina, who was a slightly surprising third. Katie Uhlaender of Breckenridge, Colo. was fourth, just 0.14 seconds behind Nikitina in the race for bronze, and a quarter-second behind Pikus-Pace.
“With her weight and her push it’s going to be tough to catch her,” Uhlaender said of Yarnold.
So the stage is set for two drama-laden final runs Friday night.
Calgary’s Sarah Reid was in eighth after two heats, while Mellisa Hollingsworth was 16th.
Retirement is looming for Pikus-Pace; she won’t compete again after these Olympics, and is in the Sochi Games primarily because she finished one-tenth of a second away from a bronze in Vancouver four years ago. And if that wasn’t enough, injuries kept her from two days of training this week, meaning she was still learning nuances about the track during competition Thursday.
Nikitina will have the support of the home crowd, plus the home-ice advantage from having far more practice runs than any international slider.
And Uhlaender is in a great spot to more than salvage a frustrating season, one derailed before it began after she suffered a concussion in preseason training.
Still, they all are trying to catch Yarnold, who’s two runs away from taking over as the skeleton ice queen.
“I haven’t been thinking about other people’s expectations at all,” Yarnold said. “I think I have such high expectations for myself.”