Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Bringing the (Sarah) Hammer to new event
By Bonnie D. Ford
Months before it happened, track cyclist Sarah Hammer knew the International Olympic Committee was probably going to demote her best event from Olympic medal status for 2012, citing a need to streamline the program and even out the medals available to both genders. It still came as a shock.
"I didn't understand where the motivation was coming from," said Hammer, who had already won two of her four world championships in the 3,000-meter individual pursuit in 2009 when the IOC announced the change. "It's such a popular event -- the blue ribbon event of cycling."
The move knocked the spectator-friendly race in which two cyclists start at opposite ends of the track and chase one another while simultaneously trying to beat the clock off its medal perch and folded it into a new two-day event called the omnium. It aroused controversy that bubbles to this day, but Hammer opted to go with the flow and race what was put in front of her. "I knew from that point on that my focus would be on the team pursuit and the omnium," she said. "Obviously, it was an adjustment."
And just as obviously, Hammer has adjusted. Last weekend at the track world championships in the Netherlands, the 27-year-old Temecula, Calif. star retained her crown in the individual pursuit and helped the U.S. to a second-place finish in the team pursuit. Perhaps most tellingly where London 2012 is concerned, Hammer won a fiercely-contested silver medal in the omnium -- the new six-part wheel-o-rama that is the spiritual cousin of track and field's heptathlon.
Hammer's podium hat trick was the first by an American woman at track cycling worlds and further reinforced her status as an Olympic medal favorite next year. She is the reigning world record holder (3 minutes, 22.269 seconds) in the individual pursuit -- a goal she achieved last May -- and believes it is a critical factor to success in the omnium, which for the women also includes a 250-meter "flying lap" time trial, a 20-kilometer points race, a 10-kilometer scratch race, a 500-meter time trial and an elimination race.
Hammer is one of only a few elite women who eschews road racing and competes solely on the track, although she is convinced that the omnium will prompt more specialization. "The fact that you have so many more events means that people are going to have to put in a lot more time on the track," she said.
She is currently based in Mallorca, Spain, with her husband and coach Andy Sparks, who also happens to be the head coach of the Irish national track cycling squad. (Sparks guided the U.S. team in Beijing in 2008 when Hammer made her Olympic debut and subsequently coached at an international facility in Switzerland.) "It's great for both of us," Hammer said. "The Irish don't have a history in the sport, so they're building their program up. It's good for me too, to have new faces around in training."
The biggest downside? Hammer's two dogs, a Golden retriever and a black Lab, are staying behind in southern California with her parents while she gears up for London.
Hammer hopes the 2012 Games will mark the peak of an already outstanding career. She left the sport after racing in the junior ranks but was lured back after watching the Olympic competition in Athens in 2004 and finished fifth in the individual pursuit in Beijing despite the fact that her preparation was disrupted by a serious back injury.
Hammer suspects she'll be stronger mentally this time as well. "I'll still be excited, but I'll know what to expect this time, and that is an advantage," she said.