Sarah Hammer sat at the airport waiting to board a late-night flight to another big competition, as she’s done too many times to count over the course of her cycling career.
Only now, the three-time Olympian and four-time Olympic medalist is no longer on the athlete side of things. In late February, Hammer was named associate director, high performance for U.S. Paralympics Cycling, and from March 22-25 she’ll be the head coach for Team USA at the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships at the Olympic velodrome in Rio. It’s a role in which she can remain involved with the sport following her retirement from competition in the fall of 2017 and bring her immense store of knowledge, experience and unmatched will to win to Team USA.
“People keep asking do you want to come back on the athletics side because a lot of people do retire and come back,” said Hammer, 34, one of the most decorated track cyclists in the U.S. who herself retired briefly in 2003 before returning. “I haven’t had one inkling of that because I’m still connected. I’m still here. It’s almost the best of both worlds because I don’t have to train hard anymore, and I don’t want to.”
Hammer and her husband, coach Andy Sparks, moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2013, and throughout her time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center she prepared alongside a number of Para-cyclists including Justin Widhalm and Jason Kimball. One of the things she quickly learned about the program is that it’s really no different from the Olympic program.
“We do the same training and have the same intensity and the same will to win,” she said. “It’s an honor to get to work with them.”
Prior to accepting the staff position, Hammer was working with the team as a contract coach, a role she took on last fall. So although she wasn’t coming in brand new, one of her first priorities was to reach out to the athletes and coaches she hadn’t yet gotten the chance to know, offering little tidbits of knowledge along the way.
Another asset Hammer brings to the position is that through her experience competing in nine world championships and winning 15 medals and going to three Olympics, she understands what’s going through the athletes’ minds.
“That was one of my big strengths as an athlete was the mental side of it,” she said. “I can tell them those nerves are so normal. Everyone’s nervous, and I can remind people to focus on what they’re doing right at that moment. I think that side of it with me being so fresh off my career as an athlete, it’s not like people can say, ‘Oh yeah, whatever, you don’t know what it feels like.’ Yeah, I do. My last race was the world championships last year so I do know what it feels like, and how nerve-wracking that process is and what the mental side of it is like. That’s one of my strengths that I hope to bring to our athletes.”
Hammer won silver medals in both the omnium and team pursuit in Rio in 2016 and London in 2012. Her medals in 2012 snapped a 12-year U.S. medal drought in track cycling, and in 2016 she was part of the first U.S. squad to win a world team pursuit title for the U.S. In 2011, she became the first American woman to win three world championship medals at a single worlds.
Hammer now coaches a team of 17 into the world championships. She already had some experience with the coaching aspect of things so the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to prepare athletes for competition wasn’t a surprise.
Now she’s looking forward to getting going in Rio.
“I think we have an amazing team heading into Rio, and of course we want to have our medal goals, but at the end of the day all eyes are on Tokyo 2020,” she said. “That’s the main goal coming out of Rio. Obviously we want to have success but the main thing is to be able to debrief afterward and see what worked and what didn’t and what we need to put our focus on. This will give me a good idea, especially being on the ground and seeing everybody in action.”
The Temecula, California, native also hopes that moving forward, others will see the parallels she knows exist between the Olympic and Paralympic programs.
“Unfortunately we don’t get the mainstream exposure that the Olympics do and the main thing is it’s the same intensity and quality of racing and dedication that these athletes have,” she said. “In my career I trained side-by-side with a lot of our athletes and it’s the same intense sport. I wish people would take more notice, and hopefully in the future we can keep spreading the word.”