Sarah Hammer-Kroening didn’t have to reach too far into her soul and memories to find empathy at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
A three-time Olympian and four-time silver medalist, she’s been retired from cycling since 2017 but still is very close with Team USA as the associate director of high performance for U.S. Paralympics Cycling.
Come the Tokyo Games, Hammer-Kroening said, she was so connected to every U.S. Para-cyclist competing on the track and road, and she just wanted the best for them, no matter the circumstance or outcome.
The 16-member team came home with eight medals and multiple top-10 finishes, but also had its share of disappointments due to injuries and a crash.
“I really am so impressed by our team, because I know what went into the road to Tokyo — it wasn’t easy, and they all found a way,” Hammer-Kroening said. “We did miss out on some medals, but it wasn’t from a lack of preparation. You also need to have some good luck. And we had a lot of things that were so unfortunate.”
Hammer-Kroening cited the pre-Tokyo crash that forced Sam Bosco to withdraw from the Paralympic team, as well as injuries and crashes to other cyclists at the Games. At the same time, U.S. cyclists came through with historic performances as well, including Oksana Masters winning two gold medals on her handcycle. Shawn Morelli claimed Team USA’s other gold medal, also on the road.
“We had amazing performances by all of our male and female athletes,” Hammer-Kroening said. “It speaks so much to where Para-cycling is going and how the quality of competition is so high. You must be at your best to win.
“I saw it, I felt it. I knew exactly what they were going through out there. I wanted to be there in any way I can to support them. Sometimes it was a pep talk, sometimes it was just talking out disappointment. I know, because that was me just a few years ago. I wanted to be that support for them.”
In her role working with the U.S. athletes, Hammer-Kroening sees everything that happened this summer and in Tokyo as springboards for evaluation, improvement and preparation for the next few years. The upcoming slate of world championships, world cups and other big competitions leading into Paris 2024 are top of mind.
Her area of expertise, thanks to her elite cycling career, is on the track. Hammer-Kroening is an eight-time world champion and remains a huge advocate for the discipline. The U.S. posted strong track times in Tokyo but fell short of its performance in Rio, in part due to blazing times by athletes from countries such as Australia and Great Britain.
Hammer-Kroening also noted that some of the world’s top track cyclists only compete in that discipline, while in the U.S. all of the Paralympic track athletes also compete on the road.
“What I saw out there was that the times are getting so fast, they are riding right there with able-bodied (athletes) — these are super serious times,” Hammer-Kroening, 38, said. “We did well, and I love showing my riders off, giving them as much attention as they deserve for their talent. The speed was so impressive.”
Hammer-Kroening’s switch from athlete to administrator has been a four-year evolution, allowing her to use her depth of elite experience and learn the elements of the Para-cycling. Her approach involves a lot of listening and observing.
“The first year I got into the job, I didn’t want to change too much,” Hammer-Kroening said. “I wanted to see where things were, ask some questions. I first started on track stuff, trying to get things more organized. Since then, I’ve really wanted to make things be more supportive for the athletes. We want to optimize everything, to let them be at their best. I think things are heading that way.”
Hammer-Kroening has improved the race experience through more consistent on-site staffing and looking at equipment and training needs. She also works closely with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s range of assets, allowing for stronger connections for training and important elements such as nutrition and performance coaching.
“I totally understand how you want to be surrounded with all the support you can when you are the athlete,” she said. “Those elements help get you to be the best. I was so lucky to have so much support and the right people around me when I was competing. I didn’t always get the results I wanted, but I knew they would be there for me no matter what.
“That is what I want for our athletes, from me being there, and having a whole team surrounding them too. I love being in this position to make change and help empower our athletes to reach their potential.”