SARAH Ulmer won the hearts of New Zealanders when she became the first Kiwi to win an Olympic cycling gold medal in the women’s individual pursuit in Athens in 2004.
Dubbed the country’s golden girl after her sensational ride at Athens, the now 36-year-old mother of Lily (2) and Emily (1) turned back the clock at an exclusive Olympic evening hosted by the Gisborne branch of ANZ.
Ulmer and Gisborne’s 1984 Olympic kayak K4 1000 metres gold medallist Grant Bramwell thrilled the large crowd with their wit, candour and honesty as they gave an insight into what it took to be an Olympic champion.
Ulmer was the star of the show but Bramwell and MC Laura McGoldrick, of the television cricket show, were far from supporting acts.
Yesterday did not start well for Ulmer. She had to drive from Cambridge after flights were cancelled due to fog and mechanical problems.
“It was amazing — four flights cancelled — but it’s great to be here,” said Ulmer who took 12 years to win that elusive gold medal.
Ulmer was seventh in her first Olympics at Atlanta in 1996 and fourth at Sydney in 2000 before winning gold at Athens in 2004 and breaking her own world record for the 3000m individual pursuit by almost six seconds.
“If it hadn’t been for my partner (Brendan Cameron) I probably would never have gone to Athens,” she said.
“After coming so agonisingly close to a bronze in Sydney, where I thought I had finished third, I hadn’t heart to put myself through another four years for a minor placing, so I retired.
“But Brendan, who had just started a new business, came home early one day and told me he was packing in his job.
“He said ‘we’re going to give this Olympic thing one more crack, only this time I will be your wingman’. Before that I had always been my own coach. To have someone have the passion to give up his new business and to have the confidence in my ability to go faster than I have ever ridden, was enough to get me back on the bike.”
When that magic golden moment came, elation was not the overriding emotion.
“It was relief — realising that after all the years I had worked so hard, the dream had come true.
“Then pain, not being able to breathe and thinking ‘oh my God I hope I don’t fall off my bike in front of all these cameras’.
“We don’t have brakes, so it takes about a lap to slow down.”
Bramwell said relief was also his first reaction.
“We (Alan Thompson, Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald) had been training for four years for a race that would last three minutes,” he said.
“We believed we could win, especially if the final turned out to be an endurance race. We knew we weren’t the fastest crew, so the plan was to go for it from the start, break the field up and then hold on.
“The night before the final I couldn’t sleep. I kept going over and over in my head different scenarios.”
The race plan worked until about the last 250m.
“We started to die. The boat was starting to drop in the water. Being at the back, in the heats I could look over and see clear water, which meant we were in front. In the final I looked across and saw two crews alongside us.
“That’s when Ferg gave the call to lift the stroke rate and suddenly the boat was lifting out of the water which comes from speed. When we crossed that line first and I knew we had won gold, it was sheer relief.
“By the time you get back to the pontoon, the elation is starting to set in but there’s a lot more emotion shown by today’s athletes.
“If any of us had started jumping up and down, the others would have given a look as if to say ‘what are you doing?’ ”
Ulmer got into cycling at school. Bramwell had a swimming and surf lifesaving background.
“Unknown to me, my dad and poppa were top cyclists in their days but they never talked about their feats, nor were there any medals on display, which is probably just as well,” said Ulmer.
“Being a typical teenage rebel, if they had suggested I take up cycling I would have run a mile and done anything but become a cyclist.
Ulmer’s father Gary was a New Zealand champion road cyclist and his father Ron competed in track cycling at the 1938 Empire Games in Sydney.
Bramwell said he was not a good swimmer.
“I was better at surf lifesaving but then I did some paddling over the winter and realised there were more opportunities to compete overseas.
“Surf lifesaving was basically about three countries — New Zealand, Australia and South Africa — whereas kayaking was a global sport.”
Both agreed that apart from winning gold, the everlasting memories of their Olympics were the opening ceremony, life in the village, the food, the other athletes and being drug-tested.
“The pressure is really on when you see other guys leaving after completing their sample and you are still there with an official watching you, and you can’t pee,” said Bramwell.
Ulmer’s experience was a bit more graphic.
“We have a chaperone who comes into the cubicle with us and everything from your waist down has to be dropped down and everything from waist up has to be lifted above your head. Then you are handed a small cup and the chaperone sits there staring at you.
“Walking around the stadium for the opening ceremony brings home what it is to be representing your country,” said Bramwell.
Ulmer said it was such a huge honour to represent New Zealand and all the people who had supported you.
“The athletes get the accolades but there is always a lot of people behind the scene.
“The Kiwi teams have a unique way of turning their part of the village into a home away from home and you would often see other athletes come over to our place — especially to see the haka.
“Where some teams had flags, we had banners sprawling down over 12 blocks . . . and the food, what can I say? I wanted to stick to my regular diet but to do that I had to walk past all this delicious-looking food and watch some of the other competitors eat enormous amounts of food.
When asked what made an Olympic athlete Bramwell said he was a firm believer in champions being made, not born.
“’Sure, there are some naturally-talented athletes who come along every so often — Usain Bolt for one — but 99 percent of champions are people like Sarah and myself. People dedicated to their sport, who work hard at their training and look after themselves.
Ulmer said you needed to have the guts to be different.
“When I started taking cycling seriously, I was in sixth form. While the rest of my friends were partying, I was either training or at home resting.
“Eventually, they stopped asking me to go out with them but I had made up my mind that cycling was my gig, and I was going to give it a good go.”
The rest is golden history.