#19) Lizzy Yarnold


Retirement is one of sport’s inevitabilities, alongside success, failure and injury.

And while there will always be some upset at seeing their favourite athletes walking away, the mark of one that’s truly special is the universal outpouring of love sent their way after making the announcement.

This is certainly the reaction afforded to Lizzy Yarnold after the reigning Olympic champion announced she is stepping away from skeleton.

Not that many would have expected anything different for an individual who will sit alongside the likes of Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Chris Hoy and Laura Kenny as one of Britain’s greatest Olympians.

The list of accolades Yarnold currently holds is staggering. Not only is she Britain’s most successful Winter Olympian – being the first ever to win two golds – she also holds the title of being the most decorated Olympic skeleton athlete ever.

On top of that she is one of our greatest female Olympians, with only Kenny and Charlotte Dujardin having won more golds while Nicola Adams, Jade Jones, Shirley Robertson and Steph Cook are among those who match her tally.

Yet while many of these names are rightly lauded across the nation, it can sometimes appear that Yarnold’s achievements dip slightly under the radar.

Not that the 29-year-old seems to mind, stating to Sean Ingle shortly after winning her historic second title in Pyeongchang: ‘I certainly wouldn’t pursue celebrity status.’

Rather than detract from Yarnold though, this only endears her more to us – there is nothing more fans love than a sporting star we can relate to.

Even the fact Yarnold’s Twitter account doesn’t have a blue tick makes her seem that bit more relatable.

Whether it’s appearing on TV shows such as A Question of Sport or on her social media channels, the 2015 world champion constantly oozes fun and positivity.

Here is someone who is not only able to enjoy and appreciate the best – and often simplest – parts of their life, but also wants others to be able to do the same.

The former heptathlete dedicates much of her time to inspiring children, visiting hundreds of eager youngsters each year with the aim of teaching important lessons such as to always keep going and believe in themselves.

This isn’t just something she does with kids though; as team-mate, fellow Olympic medalist and close friend Laura Deas told the SportSpiel podcast earlier this year, Yarnold also brought this energy and zeal to British Skeleton and, in doing so, helped the team grow and succeed.

“We go back a long way – it’s very nice to have someone that you have a real good friendship with on the circuit because it’s a very testing environment,” the Welsh athlete said.

“To be able to step away from the track at the end of the day, put the kettle on, have a cup of tea and discuss the day with her is great.

“We’ve known each other a long time and we both recognise and respect how hard it is to maintain yourself at an elite level for so long.

“We’ve got a lot of respect for each other in how we go about carrying ourselves through the sport and we’re so supportive of each other.”

That respect then grew amongst the public as Kent-born Yarnold stormed to her second gold in February, overhauling a significant deficit ahead of the final run to prove she really is one of the best the sport has ever seen.

Furthermore she did so while very ill, although at the time it was not widely known just how bad the chest infection she was suffering with was.

That became apparent in a stark and honest interview with Martha Kelner back in July, where Yarnold stated her condition was so bad she could barely breathe.

In addition, she had recently learned of a growth on her knee that would later require an operation and also had a flare-up of her vestibular disorder – which causes dizziness and a loss of balance – on the first day of competition.

But the real worry was the back pain she was suffering from, which became so serious after winning the gold that she could barely walk and eventually required major surgery.

Combine all these and the fact that she was able to compete, let alone win, shows just how strong and determined she is – that is something that can only be admired.

Her frankness in that subsequent interview with Kelner is also something to be applauded.

Rather than keep this hidden, Yarnold chose to speak out and highlight that social media really is just a smokescreen to what goes on behind closed doors.

One quote in particular stands out: “There’s the price of having been successful.”

Here she is teaching us another important lesson – that winning often has painful consequences.

Some may take differing views on her situation, with one being that skeleton is just a sport and that what she did – risking her long-term health – was foolish.

But as any athlete will tell you, their sport is everything to them and nothing will stop them in their pursuit of reaching the top.

Her sheer courage, determination and resilience to do what she did, power through all those issues and come out on top is, to me, awe inspiring.

She didn’t just do it for her own gain though; that second gold means that Yarnold will be seen as a well respected figure and a role model to women and children alike.

Importantly, she is now someone whose views on important topics such as doping and mental health will carry significant weight and be listened to by those who matter.

Since Pyeongchang she has become the face of the #NotARedCard initiative, which aims to encourage conversations about mental health in the workplace, before also airing her views on the controversial decision from WADA to reinstate Russia’s anti-doping agency earlier this month.

 

This is an area in particular where someone like Yarnold – a strong individual whose opinions will be carefully thought out and listened to by many – is desperately needed in order to try and create the clean playing fields many of us crave.

While it may be sad that we will no longer see such a fantastic athlete on the track, we can take some comfort in knowing that, after receiving an OBE for service to winter sports, Yarnold will continue to push the drive for medals as well as clean sport for years to come.

For that we could not be more grateful.

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