LONDON — It was hammer time at the velodrome in the Olympic Park tonight.
With Sir Paul McCartney cheering from the stands, the British women’s team pursuit squad hammered to the line to take the gold — and set a world record, their third of the 2012 Olympic Games. In this inaugural women’s event at the Olympic Games, Sarah Hammer led the U.S. team of Dotsie Bausch, Jennie Reed, and Lauren Tamayo to the silver medal.
“It was going to take like maybe the British crashing,” joked Bausch. “They were obviously in another league. What we wanted to do is go out and fight to the end because that’s what this team’s always done.”
But against the powerhouse British, silver was as good as gold for the Americans — and a big reward for a program that began in 2009 after the IOC announced that team pursuit would be part of the 2012 Olympics and not individual pursuit, Sarah Hammer’s specialty. She is a four-time pursuit world champion.
“When I heard they were going to take out some event [from the Olympics], I never thought that it would be the individual pursuit,” said Hammer in an interview last year. “I remember being just shocked. How could they take out that event? But they did.”
Hammer didn’t waste energy sulking. She immediately began focusing on team pursuit — a discipline where teams of three cyclists start at opposites sides of the track and “pursue” each other for 3000 meters. Whoever crosses their respective finish lines first wins. Teams can consist of four riders, with one sitting out (and resting) in each round.
With Bausch, Tamayo, and Reed, Hammer and her teammates began working toward their goal of an Olympic medal in 2012. And results came quickly.
Hammer, Bausch, and Tamayo finished fourth at the 2010 UCI World Track Cycling Championships. Less than two months later, these same three set a world record at the Pan Am Championships.
At 2011 Worlds, they took a silver medal — with Reed riding in the final instead of Tamayo. It was a fantastic result for a team that trained together for only a few weeks a year. Bausch, Reed, and Hammer live in different California cities (Hammer also lives in Europe during the competition season), and Tamayo calls North Carolina home.
The British and Australian teams train together year-round. But with world championship silver medals in their trophy cabinets, the Americans had bright hopes for the Olympics.
Then at 2012 Worlds in March, they finished fifth. It was a wake-up call.
“We knew we had to do something different than what we’d been doing,” said Hammer.
The four women moved to Majorca, Spain, after worlds to train together for two solid months.
“That was the key to the success here,” said Ben Sharp, USA Cycling’s track endurance director & director of endurance programs. “Our international results have been substandard and far below our potential. So we had to regroup and really make that full-on commitment and come together as a team.”
In London, the commitment showed in the team’s fluidity on the track, exchanging leads like a well-tuned machine. They qualified second in 3:19.406 — over a tenth-of-a-second faster than the world record time they set back in 2010.
But to move onto the medal rounds, they had to get by Australia in the first round. The Aussies are the reigning world silver medalists in women’s team pursuit.
A third of the way into the 3000-meter round, Hammer, Bausch, and Reed were behind the Australians by 1.161 seconds.
In a sport where times are calculated to a thousandth-of-a-second, a one-plus-second gap is huge.
With 500 meters to go — a little over one lap around the wooden track — the Americans were still a few tenths behind. Then Hammer took the lead and well, hammered. The U.S. women crossed the line just over two-tenths ahead of Australia — in 3:16.853 at an average speed of 34 mph.
“Our strategy in that round was to keep it within range and then launch it at the end,” said Hammer, downplaying her role.
Bausch cut to the chase: “Sarah brought it home like no other. Not all these teams got to pack a Sarah Hammer in their suitcase to come to the Olympics. She was phenomenal.”
“It’s just her uncanny crazy capability to dig herself into a deep, deep hole and still keep the speed,” explained Sharp of Hammer’s finishing pull. “[The Australians] got ‘Hammered.’”
Reed was so tired from the effort that she could not lift an arm to celebrate. But the win put them in the gold medal round against the British. A medal was assured.
But against the Brits, who lowered the world record in every round here in London, that medal was most likely going to be silver.
With the crowd roaring, the Americans — Hammer, Bausch, and Tamayo this time — fell behind from the start. Any tenth they took back, the British quickly erased.
And they knew it by Sharp’s body language. His position on the track let them know how far down they were.
“The scenario that I implanted in their heads [three years ago] is that we would be racing Great Britain in the final in London, and they weren’t going to [be able to] hear a thing from me,” said Sharp. “We worked on the nonverbal communication.”
By the finish, the British trio set another world record. But the Americans were thrilled with the silver.
“I’m just so proud, I can’t believe that us girls got this medal,” said Hammer, who is a gold medal favorite in the omnium on Monday and Tuesday.
“I’m going to think about the omnium,” she added. “But right now, I’m going to be looking at this quite a few times tonight.”
The women’s team pursuit silver medal capped a good night for the resurrected U.S. track program. Jimmy Watkins, a full-time fire fighter from California, comfortably moved on to the quarterfinals in the men’s match sprint. After three of six events, Bobby Lea currently sits in 11th in the men’s omnium.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.