20 NZ Olympic Moments: No. 6: Lung bursting pain Ulmer's lasting memory

By Dylan Cleaver

Herald sports writers Dylan Cleaver and David Leggat continue to count down New Zealand's great Olympic moments.

Think of John Walker at the Olympics and you think of his arms outstretched as he crosses the line, think of the rowing eight in Munich and it is the tears of grown men on the podium.

Think of Sarah Ulmer and it is her, hunched over the frame of her bike, trying desperately to replenish the oxygen she has just spent over 3m 24.537s of sheer, world record-breaking brilliance.

In terms of margin, her 3000m individual pursuit victory was convincing, but don't try telling Ulmer it was easy. Asked to recall her thoughts during that frantic final push and one thought dominates.

"The pain, to be honest," she told the Weekend Herald. "Not being able to breathe and just thinking, 'My God, I hope I don't fall off my bike in front of all these people and all these TV cameras'.

"It's terrible that that's my overriding thought from the Olympics. Not getting control of my breathing and the pain."

It's likely her memories have altered since. It's said that the brain has an amazing capacity to erase memories of pain. It's why women will suddenly declare that they fancy a second child, it's why that third tequila shot seems like a great idea at the time and it's why athletes continually push themselves to their physically limits in search of a small medallion to wear around their necks.

For Ulmer, that quest took on an extra edge when she missed bronze in Sydney 2000 by a margin almost impossible to discern to the naked eye. Realistically, she knew Athens might be her final opportunity and she and partner-coach Brendan Cameron were going to leave nothing to chance as Ulmer attempted to scale her Mt Olympus.

After initial fears that the track would be buffeted by winds were allayed, it was clear the times were going to be fast, but her eventual winning time was nearly 6s faster than the world record she had set earlier that year at the Melbourne world champs.

From early on in her gold medal ride-off against Australian Katie Mactier - Dutch legend Leontien Ziljaard-van Moorsel had to be content with bronze - it was clear something special was in the offing.

Pulling a bigger gear than Mactier, Ulmer nudged ahead of her surprisingly early and, with Cameron trackside indicating her ever-increasing lead, simply blew her off the track.

The girl could be forgiven for being puffed.

- NZ Herald

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