RIO DE JANEIRO — Four years ago, the women’s omnium gold medal at the London Olympic Games was decided by one race, one point and less than one second.
And Sarah Hammer ended up on the short end of the duel, taking silver while Great Britain’s Laura Trott claimed gold in the six-event omnium, considered the “decathlon” of track cycling.
In Rio, it was the silver and bronze medals that were decided by the last race and a handful of points. And this time, Hammer came out on top, winning her second consecutive Olympic silver medal in omnium and her fourth silver overall.
“I’m so excited,” said Hammer, visibly more relaxed than she was in London four years ago.
“Of course, you always say you want to get a medal. When you’re talking about six events over two days in bunch racing, absolutely anything can happen. I’m so thankful that everything went as planned. There’s nothing that I could have done better.”
Trott — the 24-year-old current omnium world champion — dominated the omnium in Rio from the first event, collecting 230 points to successfully defend her Olympic gold medal. Jolien D’Hoore, who was locked in a two-day battle with Hammer, claimed bronze with 199 points, just seven shy of Hammer’s 206.
It’s Hammer’s fourth Olympic silver medal in two Games. In addition to her silver in the omnium in 2012, she has won silver medals twice in team pursuit.
The omnium debuted at the 2012 Olympics. But it came at the expense of Hammer’s favorite event, the individual pursuit. She’s a five-time world champion in individual pursuit.
While the individual pursuit is an endurance race, where cyclists start on either side of the track and “pursue” each other for 3,000 meters (though the real opponent is the clock), omnium includes both endurance and sprint events held over two days to determine the best all-around track cyclist. In each race, points are awarded. After the six events, the rider with the highest cumulative point total wins.
Hammer describes it as “two days, full full gas. Physically it is exhausting, mentally it is absolutely the toughest.”
Since winning the omnium silver medal at the 2012 London Games, Hammer has won the world title twice. And coming to Rio, her stated goal was to win gold.
But Trott seized control from the first event and by the end of three events on Monday was solidly in the lead, with D’Hoore in second and Hammer two points behind in third.
Racing on Tuesday started with Hammer’s toughest event: the time trial, where cyclists start from a standstill and race all out for 500 meters. She’s not naturally explosive off the start and takes time to reach full speed.
But after a fifth-place finish in the 500, she remained in the hunt.
“If we can say one race that I have spent the whole last four years trying to perfect, it was the 500,” she said. “I cannot be more thrilled with how my 500 went this morning. It really set the tone for the rest of the day.”
By the final event — the points race — Hammer and D’Hoore were tied with 172 points each, and far behind Trott, who had 196.
With Trott all but unbeatable (unless she crashed), Hammer’s attention turned to D’Hoore. If the American could beat the Belgian in the points race, she could claim the silver medal.
In the points race, cyclists race 25 kilometers (100 laps) in a group around the track, with a sprint held every 10 laps. Points (5, 3, 2 and 1) are awarded to the top four finishers in each sprint.
D’Hoore is an accomplished road rider who thrives in a pack and can sprint.
“I knew that it was going to be a big ask to try to match her in the sprints,” said Hammer.
The American rode tactically, sticking with D’Hoore (and Trott) throughout race. The Belgian and American went back and forth gaining sprint points. One moment, Hammer was ahead; 10 laps later, Hammer had pulled by.
D’Hoore started tiring though, and Hammer could sense it.
“That was definitely my plan,” said Hammer. “Stick with her, stick with her, stick with her, be within striking distance. My specialty is more the endurance stuff; that that was going to be where I was going to come out on top. It definitely went to plan.”
On the bell lap, Hammer flew off the front, claimed five points for the sprint, and won her fourth Olympic silver medal.
D’Hoore was not disappointed. She knew that Hammer is a fierce track rider.
“I just wanted to get a medal,” said D’Hoore. “Silver or bronze, it didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to get a medal. I came so close, fourth at worlds, fourth at European championships. I just didn’t want to get fourth today.”
For Hammer, this silver medal meant more than the one she earned in London. At age 32, she’s been in the sport for almost two decades and was one of the oldest competitors in Rio competing in the velodrome.
“It was so hard-fought over the last four years for me,” she said. “I am getting older. I have more injuries than when I was 20 or 21 years old. It has been a true fight for me to try to keep up with the new generation. It is an amazing generation to be a part of, and I am so honored to be on the tail end of this.”
She will not retire completely after Rio and plans to remain active in track cycling, working with the next generation of riders coming up and competing when she can.
“I still absolutely love racing my bike,” she said. “Am I going to go another four years? Probably not.”
The gold that she so badly wanted will have to wait for another American to win.
“We all want to win, absolutely,” Hammer concluded with a smile. “But I can honestly say that I did absolutely my best race. Thinking back, did I made a mistake? I didn’t. I am very proud of how I raced my race, of the team that prepared me to get here, all the staff that has got me to have this medal around my neck. We did it the best we could.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.