KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — 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. 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."
Pikus-Pace and Yarnold were the first two sliders down the track in the opening heat, and for a while it seemed like everyone else was waging a separate competition for the bronze. Pikus-Pace opened with a run of 58.68 seconds, Yarnold followed with a 58.43 clocking, and none of the next nine sliders could come close to matching their times.
Nikitina changed that in a hurry. She posted a first-run time of 58.48 seconds, passing Pikus-Pace and putting pressure on Yarnold. Home ice advantage clearly was paying off. It was the first time Nikitina posted a better head-to-head time than Pikus-Pace in their last 20 competition runs together, going back to late in the 2012-13 season.
"I feel responsibility," Nikitina said. "There are so many spectators and fans. I do not want to fail them." Australian officials protested Thursday's results, saying the Russians had an unfair advantage by using their own push track before the race. The protest was denied, so Nikitina remains in third.
But in the second heat, Pikus-Pace avoided a mistake that hurt her in the first run, when she lost a good amount of speed just before one of the uphill sections. She still lost some time to Yarnold, but at least moved back into the second spot.
"I feel happy with how I was able to come back in that second run," Pikus-Pace said. She missed the 2006 Olympics after getting hit by a bobsled in a freak training crash — and an eerily similar scene played out at the Sanki track after the skeleton race Thursday when a forerunning sled struck a track worker before two-man bobsled training.
Then in 2010, a medal was hers before she made a mistake early in the fourth and final run, costing her a trip to the podium. No matter what, she's leaving. A medal, of any hue, would have her leave more fulfilled.
"I'm sure I'll be pretty stoked just to be on that podium," Pikus-Pace said. "So I'll give it my best."