Britain’s most successful Winter Olympian spent four months on medication due to an ongoing back condition but she is hopeful a spinal operation will enable her to finally enjoy her success
Lizzy Yarnold avoids lingering in her sitting room because of the bad memories it stirs. She lives in a cottage 10 miles inland from Portsmouth, thoughtfully decorated, including intricate Lego models of Tower Bridge and The Simpsons’ house, constructed with husband James, and a small vegetable patch in the back garden. It is an idyllic setting but in the four months since winning a second Olympic skeleton gold it has been the scene of an agonising daily battle.
“I try not to go in that room too much because there is a grey sofa in there which I spent weeks just lying on and crying,” she says. “In the morning I’d take an industrial amount of painkillers and lay there waiting for them to take effect.”
It is only now that Yarnold, 29, feels comfortable enough to talk in detail about the chronic back pain which meant she underwent spinal surgery in June and has still not been able to properly celebrate becoming Great Britain’s most successful Winter Olympian. “I know this is a conversation I need to have,” she says, “to try and show the truth behind the smiles and everything you might see on social media. There’s the price of having been successful.
“At the moment I can see this gold medal but I can’t pick up the letters that drop through the letterbox. I’m hoping over time when I recognise the impact of the gold medal, through going to schools and talking to kids, that it will feel like it was worth it.”
Yarnold had been hoping to avoid surgery and is glassy eyed when recounting the moment she realised there was no realistic alternative. “The doctor said: ‘You can’t stay on this amount of medication.’ As an athlete that’s hard to hear but I had to face up to that. They cut a hole in my spine and chipped out bits. On the notes it says “harvesting loose fragments from Lizzy’s spine”.
Yarnold started her career as a track and field athlete, specialising in heptathlon. Even before switching to skeleton a decade ago, she had a bad back. But she is also aware that hurtling down an icy track at 80mph an estimated 1,500 times, in training and competition, will not have helped. “Yes, my back is going to be worse in 10 or 20 years because I’ve been an athlete but I wouldn’t have ever chosen a life without sport so it wasn’t a sliding doors thing. In 2012 I had a back seizure in a gym in Calgary and couldn’t move for hours.
“The muscles on either side of the spinal column seize up and it’s intense pain. At the world championships in Königsee in Germany in 2017 we were packing up afterwards and I was crawling on the floor in the bathroom to get the shower gel, crawling over to my bag to put it in, and I didn’t really think anything of it because I’ve always had a bad back.”
At the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Yarnold won gold to justify her position as favourite having dominated the season, but four years later in South Korea it was a different story. She had taken a year out after Russia and had mixed fortunes after returning.
What her fellow competitors did not know is that six months before Pyeongchang, she had also discovered a growth in a knee. Yarnold was warned the tumour could be cancerous but only a biopsy would be able to determine the cause of the problem and the medical team said the risk was low. She opted to continue on to the Games without having surgery.
Further obstacles were thrown up on arrival in Pyeongchang. First, there was the onset of a chest infection. “We were staying on the seventh floor of the hotel and had Belgium and New Zealand above us and only one lift. If I was coming out at the seventh floor I could see the other nations thinking: ‘Why can’t you just walk up the stairs?’ They weren’t heated so there was ice on the windows. I started walking up and down everyday and the pain in my chest worsened to the point I was unable to speak. The first day of competition I was in the warm-up bit on the bike coughing up sweet-corn-sized bits of phlegm and struggling to breathe. The doctor listened to my chest and said: ‘You’re really ill, you’ve got a really bad chest infection but there’s nothing I can do for you now.’”