Sarah Hammer: from Elite track cyclist to para-cycling coach
When Sarah Hammer announced her retirement from competition last September, she had eight UCI World Championship titles, four Olympic silver medals and a world record to her name.
After years at the top of Elite track cycling, it was not surprising that she chose to stop high-level competition. Nor was it a source of astonishment to learn she intended to work as a coach. But while most athletes-turned-coaches remain in their discipline, Sarah Hammer has moved across to para-cycling. Late February, she was named Associate Director, High Performance for U.S. Paralympics Cycling. One month later Hammer was at the Rio Olympic velodrome – the stage of two of her Olympic silver medals – coaching the 17-strong US team competing at the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships.
“Cycling is something I have done my whole adult life and I knew that walking away from it was not going to be easy,” says Hammer. “I raced the 2017 UCI World Championships in Hong Kong to avoid the post-Olympic blues, but I knew it (retirement) was coming after Rio.”
Hammer had already shown signs of leadership back in 2009 and 2010, during the 18 months she made the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland, her training base.
“I was 26-27 years old and one of the oldest living at the WCC. I took on a mentorship role without even realising.”
Her leadership qualities were also praised by USA Cycling when she announced her retirement last year, and it was not long before she was working with the U.S. Paralympics cycling team, as a contract coach before her permanent appointment.
Para-cycling was not entirely new to the 3km pursuit world record holder, who has lived in Colorado since 2013. It is in Colorado that U.S. Paralympics Cycling runs its resident programme, at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Centre (CSOTC).
“I trained side by side with many of the para-cyclists going into Rio and I realised I would like to work in some sort of capacity with para-cycling. They were some of my last training partners, and I can tell you that they train at the same intensity and have the same will to win.”
At the end of March, Hammer was back at the Velodromo Municipal do Rio where she had won Olympic double silver less than two years earlier. But this time she had a stopwatch around her neck and was taking splits, yelling out instructions, pep talking, congratulating… and stressing out just a little.
“Our first athlete up was Jamie Whitmore and I really wonder what my heartrate was as she got onto her bike. I think I was more nervous than when I was an athlete.
“Having said that, I think it helps that I have come into coaching fresh from competition. I remember what it’s like. One of my strengths has always been the mental aspect, knowing how to manage yourself, especially on the track." She adds:
"It’s such an intense environment with athletes warming up in little boxes like hamsters while all the spectators are watching.”
When it comes to being tough, para-cyclists score pretty well, but as their coach says: “There’s a difference between being tough and being able to get all the pieces together. I am also using my experience to look at their training and see what’s working.
“Our athletes are sponges when it comes to information. They soak it up. Even the most experienced want to be better.”
At the opening round of the UCI Para-cycling Road World Cup in Ostende, Belgium, May 3-6, Hammer will again be with her athletes: this time roadside rather than trackside. Goals have been set for the whole team, and that includes medals.
“But at the end of the day all eyes are on Tokyo 2020,” says the high-performance coach.