Coming back from burnout
Cyclist Sarah Hammer quit at age 20 to pursue a ‘normal’ life. Now she’s going for gold.
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Until January of that year, she had been one of the most promising track cyclists in the world. But she quit.
At age 20, she was burned out. She had missed her own prom. She had never experienced waking up late. So she sold everything, down to the last pedal and tire, and started working at a bagel shop in Boulder, Colo.
“I was interested in finding what was exciting about living a normal life,” she says. Soon enough, she had the answer: nothing.
“I thought, ‘What happened?’ ” she says. “I had all these dreams.”
She does again: to win gold in Sunday’s individual pursuit – an event she won at World Championships last year.
Like many other Olympic athletes, Hammer found that from the ashes of aseeming ending often springs a new beginning. Of those, five-time Olympian Dara Torres is probably the most famous. She first qualified for the Games in 1984 and twice retired before coming back to Beijing, where she secured silver in the US women’s 4x100 meter freestyle relay and will race again Sunday.
Chinese fencer Luan Jujie has returned – 24 years after she won China’s first fencing gold in Los Angeles – to compete at age 50 for her adopted homeland, Canada. And then there is Sheila Taormina, who, at 39, is the first woman to qualify for the Olympics in a third sport, adding modern pentathlon to triathlon and swimming.
Hammer may be the baby among burnout survivors, but by 2004, she had been racing for 11 years – 17 if you count her exploits on a Big Wheel (which she does). “It was all I ever knew,” she says.
But now she knows something else: it’s a rare privilege to be paid to do what one loves.
And it’s clear she loves her sport.
“Sarah has the focus, intensity, and fire within that brings great results – everything she had before, but basically the dial turned up,” says her coach, Andy Sparks.
It is 2 o’clock on a sunny June afternoon when Hammer shows up to the $15 million Los Angeles velodrome, or indoor track.
After a doe-like handshake, she turns and tows her rolling suitcase silently into the empty bleachers. She is part jockey, part thoroughbred – clear glasses over her clear blue eyes, her massive, lycra-clad muscles rippling as her cycling shoes clip-clop on the floor. Visibly keyed up, she fiddles with her earphones. “I get so nervous, but once you set me in the starting block, it’s game on,” says Hammer.