Lizzie Yarnold on her career, a love for Hampshire and her biggest challenge to date
- Credit: Archant
Double Olympic skeleton champion, Lizzie Yarnold, is about to embark on her biggest challenge to date. We chat motherhood and local life off the slopes
“Hampshire is such a welcoming county with beautiful countryside. I love walking and often go to the New Forest or Queen Elizabeth Country Park. It’s nice travelling the world but coming back here and slowing things down, I’m at peace, I can just be Lizzy.”
For someone who has won every title in her sport, 30 year old Lizzy Yarnold is engagingly, well, normal. So down to earth, in fact, that chatting to her about pregnancy and her fondness for baking bread (she buys flour from Winchester City Mill) makes me forget I’m talking to a double Olympic champion. By her own admission, during childhood, her strengths lay not in sporting prowess but enthusiasm plus the ability to quickly absorb rules and tactics. Then as a six year old on a family skiing holiday she also discovered other, psychological, assets.
“I loved the speed and wasn’t put off by the cold. At the top of a ski run you haven’t been down before, you have a feeling of sheer panic. Fear can be overwhelming. You have to stay calm and think what can I do, what am I in control of?”
In her “old cottagey, single pane glass home which gets quite chilly” Lizzy laughs when recalling the first time she heard of skeleton. At the time she was part of Girls 4 Gold, a UK talent organisation dedicated to finding and nurturing future Olympic champions and by the end of a day of physical testing she’d been handed a list of sports.
“Skeleton was at the bottom, I didn’t know what it was!”
Plunging head first down an icy track while lying on a sled is far removed from track and field events which had previously interested her. Why does she believe she was chosen?
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“It was all based on 30m sprint speed. We did sprint testing on a rudimentary track then the following year I had a proper go at the sport in Lillehammer. The first time is terrifying, there’s no other way of putting it.”
Although this initial run she likens to rattling around in a washing machine while holding up your head in a weird position, the thrill of speed proved addictive. In addition, Lizzy also demonstrates the sort of mindset required by high achievers.
“If you look at a 100m performance, each athlete trains all day, every day. The difference is the mental strength, especially in big events.”
So does this focus manifest itself in her personal life, too?
“I have an element of purposefulness in, say, moving house but I’ve needed to book a plumber for the past six months and haven’t got round to it! I can be quite lazy really.”
Perhaps it’s fortunate, then, that husband James, also part of GB’s skeleton team, takes on his share of domestic duties.
“James is better at cooking stuff from fresh, it’s nice to know what’s in your food. I’m more the baker.”
With Winchester a short drive away and “lots of good pubs” in the county, the couple enjoy eating out. Hambledon’s The Bat and Ball is a favourite, with pizzas in Southsea during James’ lunch break also a regular occurrence.
At home the “amazing garden” they inherited with their house includes a vegetable patch and greenhouse where Isle of Wight garlic is grown.
Back to the subject of sport, and specifically February 2012, Lizzy took part in her first senior World Championships in Lake Placid.
“I am process driven, here to do my best,” she states matter of factly. “I always had self belief but this was my first opportunity against the seniors.”
That attitude and conviction earned her third position and was the starting block to success at a level accomplished by no other British Winter Olympic athlete: winning every major skeleton accolade including World Championships, European and, of course, Olympic Gold in 2014 then retaining her title four years later. Is any one of these triumphs more satisfying than another?
“They are all so different. After I won the Sochi Olympics I hadn’t been World or European champion so I thought I had a nice, meaty goal ahead of me. Just over a year later I’d achieved all the titles that exist. Why did I need a second Olympic title? I like pushing myself to be the best athlete. Challenging yourself to be better transcends a gold medal.”
Lizzy might be the one in the spotlight, but she generously acknowledges the input from coaches, fellow athletes and background staff; not to mention her family, too.
“Dad always said ‘do your best’, that made me relax but equally I’m going to do everything I can and do the best I can.”
Is this an approach she’ll adopt for her latest challenge - motherhood?
“My husband says in sport you’re in control; you plan for every eventuality and practice, practice. Now we’re in a situation you can’t necessarily prepare for. But there are two of us; this is our first shared project and James is just as excited as me.”
After years of being motivated by sporting ambition and competing at “super hard level” these days goals are more modest. Walking the South Downs Way is on her to do list, but that might have to wait a while.
Surprisingly at this point, Lizzy Yarnold confesses to having a short fuse when tired and exhausted – “things that come with early parenthood” – but it’s difficult to imagine one of our most gifted Olympians anything other than calm, relaxed and in control. After all, underneath that modest, polite exterior is an ice cool determination that catapulted an average child into a world class athlete.
“What drove me before was a love of representing my country, wanting to win and doing my best. My life was physical but I ticked that box. Now it’s much more about day to day happiness and finding that happiness in simple things like a friend popping over. And for me, Hampshire is the perfect location.”
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