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LONDON (Reuters) - High-speed mother Shelley Rudman threatens to wreck home favorite Mellisa Hollingsworth's dream of Olympic gold when the skeleton competition reaches its climax at the Whistler Sliding Center this month.
Rudman, Britain's only medalist in Turin when she won silver in the event which pitches sliders head first down an icy chute with nothing more than a few centimeters of carbon fiber beneath them, just missed out on the World Cup title to Canada's Hollingsworth but is ready to turn the tables on February 19.
With Swiss Olympic champion Maya Pedersen, who like Rudman has taken time off to have a baby since Turin, struggling, the battle for women's gold this time looks like being between Canada and Britain although a clutch of Germans led by Kerstin Szymkowiak will also be podium challengers.
"I'm pretty excited," Rudman told Reuters. "Mellisa and I are quite good friends. She is a really strong slider and we have been toing and froing all season and although she's strong I'm on her tail. I hope she does well but I hope I do better."
The Canadians have the distinct advantage of significantly more ice time on the treacherous Whistler track with their sliders enjoying some 300 training runs compared to the 30 athletes from other nations must make do with.
It is not ideal and rather unfair, Rudman says, but she believes the overwhelming home support Hollingsworth will enjoy could add to the pressure on her shoulders.
"Mellisa will be starting off number one after winning the overall World Cup," said Rudman, whose partner and father of daughter Ella, Kristan Bromley, will be gunning for a men's medal.
"Home support will either be good for the Canadians or it will be a lot of pressure. Nobody knows how you will react at the Olympics because it's such a big event."
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Rudman and Bromley could both win medals to take home for their daughter to play with, although Bromley faces a tough task in a men's event where Martins Dukurs will start as favorite to win Latvia's first Winter Olympics gold medal.
Dukurs, 25, won four of his eight World Cup races this season to take the title while his brother Tomass was fourth in the standings. Germany's Frank Rommel will also be a threat after a consistent season.
Canadian veteran Jeff Pain, twice a world champion and silver medalist in Turin behind compatriot Duff Gibson, will carry home hopes along with Jon Montgomery, who tasted victory on the Whistler track last year in the World Cup.
"What I did in Whistler last year means nothing," Montgomery told the Canadian team website (www.olympic.ca). "It is a whole new ball game with a bunch of guys that can win the gold.
"I am really pumped to be going home and getting set to compete in the Olympics in Canada, and hopefully I'll be the fella that comes out on top."
Editing by Clare Fallon