By Andrew Hood
Sarah Hammer gladly traded bagels for a gold medal Thursday to win the first American track title in 10 years in the women’s individual pursuit.
Two years ago, Hammer was burned out and left racing for a taste of the real world. That meant waking up at 5 a.m. – not to go on a training ride, but to work a bagel shop in Colorado Springs while she considered her immediate future.
In January last year, she decided that cycling left a better aftertaste than reality and returned to competition more mature and focused.
“I’m blown away,” Hammer said after winning in 3:37.227. “It’s not so hard going to training after I know what it’s like to go to a job at 5 a.m. that you hate.”
Hammer fulfilled her goal of “getting into the medal round” by posting the fastest time in qualifying. Then she held on to beat Russian veteran Olga Slyusareva, who made a late charge to nearly erase a one-second deficit less than halfway through the 3000-meter race.
“I didn’t come here to lose by a tenth of a second,” Hammer said. “I could tell by the cheers of the crowd she was coming back. I gave everything and more. I still can’t believe I am wearing this.”
The gold is the first by any American track rider since Marty Nothstein won the keirin in 1996 and the first by an American female since Rebecca Twigg won the individual pursuit in 1995.
“It’s nice to step into possibly the next endurance athlete womans shoes,” she said. “Hopefully this is a step up for the American team. Maybe this can jump-start this team.”
Hammer, 22, knew she might have a gold medal in her legs following January’s Los Angeles World Cup event, when she set a track record and personal best en route to victory.
“That’s when I knew it would be possible,” she said. “I know what I can achieve and I don’t want to put limits on myself.”
She certainly didn’t, coming into Bordeaux to be one of the medal favorites among a young, inexperienced American team. For more than half the squad, this is their first taste of world-championship competition.
The gold medal will be a huge lift for the American team, which didn’t win any medals in the 2005 world championships and scored only one in 2004, a bronze in the women’s keirin.
“Sarah’s impressed me all year with her grit,” said Pat McDonough, director of track cycling. “It’s amazing for her to come to her first world championships and win the world title. That doesn’t happen a lot.”
Hammer will compete in the points race Friday and then begin to think about the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. She missed the 2004 Games while working in that bagel shop. Next time around, she hopes to be trying to bite into some golden doughnuts.