We're counting down New Zealand's 25 greatest Olympians. Today, cyclist Sarah Ulmer.

• Gold: 3000m individual pursuit, Athens, 2004

Sarah Ulmer's performance at the Athens Olympics stands above all others in New Zealand's Olympic history.

Not only did she deliver New Zealand's first (and currently only) gold medal in cycling, but she did so in world record-breaking fashion, completing a transformation from talented teen to world-beater.

Aged just 18 Ulmer won silver in the 3000m individual pursuit at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada, having won junior world titles in the individual pursuit and points race earlier that year.


Two years later she attended her first Olympics. She finished seventh in the individual pursuit in Atlanta. She qualified with the sixth best time of 3:43.176s, 10 seconds slower than the gold-medal winning ride.

Having won the individual pursuit at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, Ulmer was viewed as a medal hopeful at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

But she was not in the best of health and finished fourth; missing bronze by .08s to one of the women she had beaten in Kuala Lumpur two years earlier, Great Britain's Yvonne McGregor.

Ulmer had earlier been lapped in her semifinal by eventual gold medallist Leontien van Moorsel of the Netherlands, who was on her way to setting a new world record.

Then came the turning point. Ulmer changed coach after the Sydney Games and under Brendan Cameron began to make dramatic improvements.

She retained her Commonwealth title in Manchester in 2002 in 3:32.467s, more than six seconds faster than she'd recorded in the bronze medal ride two years earlier and under two seconds outside van Moorsel's world record.

The world record was Ulmer's in May 2004, when she won the world title in 3:30.604s, making her the favourite for gold in Athens later that year.

She started her third Olympics with a stunning ride in qualifying, clocking 3:26.400s, more than four seconds lower than her previous best.

That came after van Moorsel and Australian Katie Mactier had gone under the old time themselves just moments earlier.

Ulmer then set the quickest time in the first round to book a place in the medal ride against Mactier.

The Australian made a strong start and led by about a second after the first 1000m. More efficient under Cameron, Ulmer reversed the margin through 2000m and went on to win by three seconds in 3:24.537s, a new world record.

Sarah Ulmer was given the honour of carrying the New Zealand flag into the closing ceremony in what was to be her last act as an Olympian.

Biography: Sarah Ulmer

Attended three Olympics (1996, 2000 & 2004) and four Commonwealth Games (1994, 1998, 2002 & 2006)

Won the Halberg Award and Lonsdale Cup in 2004

Made Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to cycling in the 2005 New Years Honours List

Retired from cycling in 2007 and attended the Beijing Olympics the following year as a mentor

How we did it

This list was drawn up by expert Herald and Radio Sport journalists from our team covering the Rio Olympics.

It wasn't easy, partly because of the number of fantastic feats over the last century or so and partly because of the difficulty of comparing performances across sports and eras.

The first ground rule was that only gold medallists would be considered. That was tough considering the likes of Nick Willis (silver, 2008), Dick Quax (silver, 1976), Paul Kingsman (bronze, 1988) and Bevan Docherty (silver and bronze, 2004 & 2008) provided some of our most memorable Olympic moments.

We also agreed potential success in Rio wouldn't be taken into account. The list was also restricted to the Summer Olympics, otherwise Annelise Coberger, our only Winter Olympics medallist may have featured quite prominently.

Each member of the panel wrote their own list before we came together to thrash it out five at a time. It was a head-scratcher, but in a good way because it was a celebration of success.

List so far

No 25: Alan Thompson
No 24: Norman Read
No 23: Ted Morgan

No 21: Paul MacDonald

No 20: Hamish Bond and Eric Murray

No 19: Rob Waddell
No 18: Bruce Kendall
No 17: Mahe Drysdale

No 16: Hamish Carter

No 15: Sir Murray Halberg
No 14: The 1976 men's hockey team
No 13: Sir John Walker
No 12: Ian Ferguson