When Sarah Ulmer decided to become a cyclist, she had the job ahead of her to live up to her family’s achievements. Her grandfather, Ron, represented New Zealand as a track cyclist at the 1938 Empire Games and her father, Gary, was a national road and track champion.
But Sarah Ulmer did her family traditions proud and became New Zealand’s first Olympic cycling gold medallist when she won the 3000m individual pursuit at Athens in 2004.
At Auckland’s Diocesan School for Girls, Ulmer shone at a range of sports, but cycling drew her.
In 1994 she won junior world titles in Ecuador in the individual pursuit and the points race. That same year, when only 18, she won the individual pursuit silver medal at the Victoria Commonwealth Games.
She had a good work ethic, was well coached by her father and had a perfect temperament – tungsten-tough while competing, and bubbly, enthusiastic and modest off the track.
Competing at her first Olympics, at Atlanta in 1996, she was seventh in the 3000m individual pursuit in 3min 43.176s. By 1998, she was one of the major figures in her sport, and won the Commonwealth Games gold medal at Kuala Lumpur in 3min 41.667s. Two years later at the Sydney Olympics, when she was not in the best of health, she was shaded for the bronze medal.
At Manchester in 2002, she retained her Commonwealth Games title, recording a lightning fast 3min 32.467s. Assisted by boyfriend and former New Zealand cycling representative Brendon Cameron, her rate of improvement quickened.
She stunned cycling followers at the world championships in Melbourne in May 2004 when she set a world record of 3min 30.604s. The ease with which she won the world title was a shock.
It was a double-edged sword, though, because it placed the mantle of favouritism on her at Athens, even though her opponents included rising Australian Katie Mactier and Dutch legend Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel.
Mactier and Zijlaard-van Moorsel were outstanding at Athens. The trouble for them was that Ulmer had improved even more.
On the first day Ulmer’s time, 3min 26.400s, sent a buzz of excitement around the velodrome. In the qualifying ride shortly after, she again led the field by quite a margin, being timed at 3min 27.444s.
Ulmer’s strength in the individual pursuit was that she held her speed so well, whereas others tended to blast out of the blocks and then wobble home.
In the final, against Mactier, Ulmer trailed by a second after 1000m. After that she was remorselessly efficient. When she was done, she had recorded 3min 24.537s and had won by a staggering 3.113s, this in a sport that is measured in thousandths of a second.
Ulmer was almost as good in other track events, especially the points race, as she showed with her 1994 junior world title. She won a senior world championship medal in the points race and at Olympic and Commonwealth Games was prevented from winning more medals because she lacked sufficient support. Even so, she was sixth at the Athens Olympics and eighth at Sydney in 2000. In the Commonwealth Games she was fifth in 1994, second in 1998 and fifth in 2002.
Ulmer was Sportswoman of the Year in 1994 and won the Halberg Award after her 2004 heroics. She was twice awarded the Lonsdale Cup, in 2002 and 2004.
Her games team-mates tended to seek her out before their events, cherishing her positive attitude, experience and encouraging manner. She was captain of the 2002 Commonwealth Games team and given the honour of carrying the flag at the Athens Olympics closing ceremony.
After Athens, Ulmer turned her attention to the road, where she had such immediate success she was selected for the time trial and individual road race at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. A persistent back injury hindered her at Melbourne, forcing her withdrawal from the time trial. She finished 17th in the road race.
In the 2005 New Years Honours List, Ulmer was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to cycling. She retired from cycling in 2007 to concentrate on her events, clothing and cycle business SUB (Sarah Ulmer Brand). She attended the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a mentor.
Ulmer had a daughter, Lilly, in 2009.