American track legend Sarah Hammer recently announced that she’s hanging up her race wheels after a 12-year professional career at the top-end of the sport.
The 34-year-old is one of the most decorated track cyclists in U.S. cycling history, exiting the sport with a standing world record in the individual pursuit, eight world champion titles and four Olympic silver medals.
Amid her many accolades, Hammer is perhaps best known, however, for her performances at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Twenty-twelve was a bad year for American cycling. It’s the year that Lance Armstrong received his lifetime ban and was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. And in the midst of the controversy, his former teammates withdrew from the summer Olympics, taking much of the funding and hopes for Olympic glory with them.
But the American female cyclists persevered and delivered. Kristin Armstrong secured the gold in the individual time trial, Georgia Gold had a career-best ride en route to a bronze medal in cross-country mountain biking and Hammer would deliver two medals for Team USA.
As part of the underdog team pursuit squad, Hammer, Jennie Reed and Dotsie Bausch surprised their competition when they made it to the final rounds and eventually walked away with Olympic silver — the first U.S. women’s track cycling medal in over 20 years.
Hammer would follow up that performance with another silver-medal ride in the women’s omnium just days later.
If you were to define Hammer by one single race, it would perhaps be that opening round of the team pursuit against Australia. The Australians had been the clear favourites and Team USA struggled, trailing behind for the majority of the race. But then Hammer went to the front. With all the grit and tenacity of someone who’s wholeheartedly dedicated countless hours to prepare for this one single moment, Hammer took a tremendous, almost two-lap pull, moving the Americans in the lead. Beating the Australians by just miliseconds, Team USA was sent into the next round and on their way to an Olympic medal.
“Sarah is honestly one of the most fierce competitors out there. Her ability to push herself on race day is like very, very few others that I have seen across sport,” said Neal Henderson, a High Performance Consultant for Hammer and the US National team.
“When you see Sarah compete you will see someone who will never give up.”
The team’s London performance had surprised the world as all of their preparation was done on a shoestring budget with little to no support from the governing body. After realising that the team had a shot at gold, USA Cycling put the focus back on the women’s track program.
“We were not expected to be able to do that, I mean even I didn’t expect it,” Hammer told Ella CyclingTips, reflecting on that career highlight.
“But it was a really, really special team, we were underdogs. All four of us —myself, Dotsie Bausch, Jennie Reed, Lauren Tamayo —all funded ourselves. There wasn’t a program at all. It is putting that much blood sweat and tears into one thing. It was really unbelievable, I will always cherish that moment.”
Like many girls in the sport, Hammer was first introduced to cycling by her father. He was a masters rider and his enthusiasm for the sport and the tight knit community had her tagging along to the Tuesday night criteriums to flip lap cards.
“They were very welcoming to me so it was just a matter of time before I got out there to try it as well,” Hammer remembered.
And so, on a small Peugeot with the seat slammed down and blocks on the pedals, the then just nine-year-old Hammer got her start in bike racing. Soon adding track to the mix, the future Olympian quickly grew into her bike as well as her abilities.
A self-proclaimed natural talent, junior national titles on the road and the track came rolling in, but when she aged out of the junior categories, that success was harder to attain.
“When you change from junior to senior, it is completely different,” Hammer said. “Everyone on the world level as a senior has talent. I really wasn’t ready for the work that was involved in making it to the top.”
She’d already given up a normal childhood and elite results demanded even more time away from ‘normal’ life.
“I was not putting in what I needed to and there was no point in my continuing without being completely serious,” she said
The sport’s demand was too great. She was done, and sold all of her equipment, down to even her gloves.
Of course we know that this is not where her story ends. In fact, her time away from the sport lasted barely a year. Sitting at home during the 2004 Olympics, Hammer distinctly remembers watching riders against whom she had competed just two years earlier in the World Cup, now racing on the biggest international stage.
“I decided that I had unfinished business and that I would come back and it would be completely different,” she said. “There was never gonna be another wasted moment on my side where I didn’t put in the effort that was needed. If I’m gonna do it, I am only gonna do it for one reason, and that is to be the best that I can be.”
This realisation is what sparked the signature intensity Hammer is known for today.
She turned professional that following year and won her first world title (in the individual pursuit) 2006. She defended her title in 2007 and attended first Olympics in Beijing in 2008. Her star was rising, and this was just the beginning.
Finding her own way
When Hammer decided to return to the sport, there wasn’t a direct path for a female track cyclist to take. She had to find her own way, going the legwork and research herself.
“When I got going in my career, I was really on my own. And that was the majority of my whole career,” she said. “It was figuring things out, I had a ton of help from the USOC and really just trying to plug in the pieces and fill the holes of support.”
After the 2008 Olympics, Hammer and her husband and coach Andy Sparks established their own coaching company and elite training facility, Performance United, to share her knowledge with upcoming talent.
Their first challenge would be a big one: preparing for the team pursuit at the 2012 London Olympics.
Hammer’s career focus had always been on the individual pursuit and the points race, but in 2009 the International Olympic Committee announced that they would replace the individual pursuit with the team pursuit instead.
So, for her 2012 bid, that is the direction Hammer and Sparks decided to go.
A crew of four riders was assembled, each bringing their husband to act as supporting staff, fixing bikes, preparing meals, tackling logistics and coaching.
It was a long process —now chronicled in the documentary, “Personal Gold” — as the group had a lot of work to do to catch up to the British, Canadian and Australian teams and their well-funded programs.
“It was one of those things that we just put our heads down and put the work in, and we were fully committed to each other,” Hammer said.
In the end, it was that underdog spirit that won them the silver medal and a wake-up call for the American high performance program.
Since then, the Team USA has become a leading force on the world level, winning back-to-back World Championships and another silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, with Hammer at the forefront in two of those three events.
Business, it seems, has been finished.
“Honestly, when I came back, I never would have imagined that my career would have been what it is now. At the time you don’t really stop to reflect on that, and the past couple months I have been able to reflect on it,” Hammer shared.
“When I won my first world title the first year I went to worlds, I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe it because that, and just going to the Olympics, would have been on my list of goals to achieve.
“[My success] is beyond what I thought I would have imagined when I started out.”
A new role
As one of America’s most-accomplished cyclists ever, Hammer will now transition to the infield of the track, plying her wisdom and experience into developing the next world and Olympic champions as the Director of Coaching at Performance United.
Since the age of nine, Hammer’s whole life has revolved around cycling. And now that her unfinished business as competitor has been finished, turning her attention to coaching full-time seems but a natural progression.
Dotsie Bausch, Hammer’s 2012 pursuit teammate and coaching client, said Hammer brings her signature intensity to coaching the same way she used it to fuel her as a competitor, making her a tough but supportive coach.
“[Hammer and Sparks] took me from a complete novice to my first National Championship on the track in six weeks. It was tough and there was no messing around.”
“But in the finals of the individual pursuit, I literally flipped over and landed on my side coming out of the start gate,” recalled Bausch.
“I was mortified and I thought my race was over. But you get one restart. Andy picked me up off the track and Sarah rushed over and told me not to worry, ‘this happens all the time,’ she said.”
Later Hammer revealed to Bausch that she, in fact, had never seen such a thing.
“She knows what to say, how to say it, and what to do when the pressure is on, and that’s an aspect of her gift and will be an element of what will make her a great coach. Being under pressure is Sarah’s happy place.”
“Identifying the next thing that allows your heart to sing as loudly and as beautifully as before is the key to happiness post professional sport,” said Bausch. “I think Sarah will find that in coaching.”