|Sarah Hammer stands on the podium after winning the women's ominium at the 2014 UCI Track Cycling World Championships at the Velodromo Alcides Nieto Patino on March 2, 2014 in Cali, Colombia.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Many world-class or Olympic-caliber athletes have a fairly short window of peak performance.
This is not so in the case of seven-time world cycling champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist Sarah Hammer, who has been competing at an elite level for more than 20 years.
So when the 30-year-old cyclist had to drop out of the 2014 U.S. Grand Prix this past weekend in Colorado Springs, Colorado, due to a persistent injury that will require surgery, she hardly considered giving up the rest of her season.
The injury dates back to the 2008 Olympic points race in Beijing. The three-rider wreck, which also took out the riders from Germany and Japan, left Hammer with a broken left collarbone and required a metal plate and several screws to repair. The injury left her unable to compete for the remainder of that season.
Over the ensuing years, the vibration from daily training has worked the screws in the plate loose, leaving Hammer in constant pain, and requiring additional surgery to repair the damage.
“I’ll be getting surgery next Thursday (July 17) back in California, with the surgeon who performed the original procedure,” Hammer said.
Although Hammer will miss the Pan Am Continental Track Championships, which take place Sept. 8-14 in Aguascalientes, Mexico, she hopes to compete at the first world cup event of the season, which will take place Nov. 7-9 at a yet-to-be-determined venue.
The events are part of the overall bigger goal of qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“The only downside to having this surgery right now is that the Olympic points start being calculated this year, and the Pan Am championships is the first points event,” Hammer said.
“I’ll miss that event, but it’s not going to be the end of the world for me. I’ll still have 10 additional opportunities before the Olympics to score points.”
If history is any indication, Hammer should not be bet against.
Hammer’s career began in Southern California when she was just 8 years old and her father, a masters-level competitive cyclist, encouraged her to join him at the local-area track.
She loved the speed and intensity of the sport and was immediately anxious to compete.
“I would ride my BMX bike alongside him,” Hammer recalled. “It wasn’t long at all before I was begging for a ‘real racing’ bike.”
When she was just 13, she attended an Olympic Festival event in Colorado Springs as a member of the southwest regional team.
“I remember being so scared,” Hammer recalled, “but I just said ‘well, I’m going to have to figure out how to do this at some point, it might as well be now.’”
In 2002, Hammer moved to Colorado Springs to train but, despite being successful in the sport, decided to retire after just two years as an elite rider.
“I was burned out,” Hammer said. “I was so busy training and competing as a kid that I didn’t get the chance to do any of the normal teenage things. I didn’t have a coach here (in Colorado), and I realized quickly that, without a coach here to push me and keep me focused, that there was a huge world outside of cycling.”
That all changed during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
“My husband (Andy Sparks, two-time Olympic track cycling coach and current coach of the U.S. para-cycling team) and I were watching the Games on television.” Hammer said. “It was such a surreal thing seeing friends and former teammates of mine doing what I knew in my heart I should be doing too.”
Hammer decided to give the sport another try and, in doing so, has become one of the most successful female cyclists of all time.
“I had to go 100 percent and claw my way back in,” Hammer said. “I didn’t know how much I really wanted it until it was gone.”
Hammer credits her sheer will and mental toughness for the success she has enjoyed in her return to the world of competitive cycling.
“I may be fast and good at what I do, but there are plenty of people out there who are fast and good,” Hammer said. “I think my mental strength is what sets me apart and is my strongest attribute, especially when it comes to race day. It takes a lot to crack me.”
Since her return to the sport, Hammer has set two world records, in the individual pursuit and as part of the team pursuit, and is the first American woman to win three medals at a track world championships, which she did in 2011.
Hammer remains positive that she will return to another Olympic Games, and has her eyes set on the top step of the podium at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’m not just going to Rio to compete, I want to win gold,” Hammer said. “I’m so proud of my silver medals, but the goal is gold. I want gold.”
In the meantime, Hammer will be concentrating on rehabilitation and light training.
“I’ll be able to ride the stationary trainer,” Hammer said, “but I’ll be off the road and track for a while because of the vibrations (that can impact the screws in the metal plate on her collarbone), and the risk of falling.”