Dylan Cleaver: Thanks for the golden memory

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It has been described as one of the great moments in sporting television.

The camera, peering up from ground level, capturing Sarah Ulmer in oxygen debt at the end of her gold-medal ride in Athens.

There was no voice-over required, the sound of her wheezing and the portrait of an athlete totally spent were enough.

If it made for great television, I can promise you that being there was infinitely better.

New Zealand won three golds at those games and each was magnificent and unique. The Evers-Swindell twins, Georgina and Caroline, confirmed their world dominance in the double sculls. They were so good, so focused it almost seemed a bloodless victory compared to Hamish Carter's phenomenal gold in the triathlon.

But, for this observer, Ulmer's victory will linger the longest in the memory banks.

The velodrome was a compact, heaving venue where, from the press tribune, you could feel the rush of disturbed air every time the cyclists passed. The place pulsated with energy and, when Ulmer rode, expectation.

Ulmer crushed all before her on the way to the final. Closest rival Katie Mactier broke the New Zealander's world record on the opening day of the 3000m pursuit. But then Ulmer went out and rode a scarcely believable 3m 26.400s.

Maybe she had peaked too early.

Mactier, an Australian with a smile that hid her predatory instincts, waited in the final on a steaming Athens evening.

She led after 1000m as was expected - Ulmer cranked a high gear so was never the quickest starter - but it was a slim lead.

What followed was not a contest but a demonstration - a coronation even.

With coach and partner Brendon Cameron clutching his stopwatch in one hand and giving his charge signals with the other, Ulmer raced into the record books - 3m 24.537s, victory by more than three seconds.

Assisted by Cameron, she stopped pedalling but her cardio-vascular system still had plenty of work to do to get air to her oxygen-starved lungs.

It was an extraordinary, spine-tingling sight that captured perfectly the extreme physical sacrifices athletes make for what is essentially a small disc of precious metal.

When she cycled over to embrace her parents - father Gary was a competitive cyclist - the emotional quotient was ratcheted up even further.

"You look back and realise just how perfect and euphoric that was," Ulmer told TV3 yesterday. "It's like 'crikey, that's ridiculous, how did we do that?"'

Ulmer's post-Olympic career has been perplexing, not least to herself.

With nothing left to prove on the track, she switched to the road but a sciatic nerve injury in her leg meant she never had the opportunity to transfer her success from the boards to the tarmac.

Several times via email, I've asked Ulmer to share those frustrations in print but each time she has, unfailingly politely, declined "until I have some news".

She has news now but not the sort any of us watching television that morning, or in the velodrome that evening, wanted to hear.

Ulmer said yesterday that "being an athlete, it's such a selfish life".

That would be true only if you gave nothing back. That night in Athens exempted her from all such charges.

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