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'The Hammer' pounds her way back into cycling; other Olympic notes

The Hammer is nailing down a new Olympic event, and she may soon need a place to hang her first Olympic medal. That's Sarah Hammer, the 28-year-old cyclist from Temecula, Calif., who easily won a World Cup race in Cali, Colombia over the weekend in the new track cycling Olympic event, omnium. The Hammer outpointed Canada's Tara Whitten and Britain's Laura Trott, two of the Olympic favorites, opening up the Olympic competition.

When the U.S. names its track cycling team for the London Games on Dec. 15, expect Hammer's name to be on it. Though the event has taken on different formats over the years, its present iteration -- an accumulation of points based on six races in two days: flying lap, points race, elimination, individual pursuit, scratch race and time trial -- suits Hammer's versatility. That's a good thing, since the omnium will replace three other events on the Olympic program next summer: the points race, the Madison and the individual pursuit -- an event in which Hammer is a four-time world champion.

Though she hasn't yet won an Olympic medal, it seems Hammer has been near the top of her sport forever. She grew up watching her dad Cliff compete in masters' races, and she sometimes flipped lap cards at the races to enhance her allowance from the tips she received. Sarah then began her own competitive career at age nine, winning a junior national title when she was 12. She started racing on the track two years later, even though at the time she only rode in one gear because she didn't know how to change them.

Hammer's innate talent made up for a lack of polish. She switched back to the challenge of road racing at 18 and moved away from her family's home in to put on the miles full time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She took second at her first senior World Cup race when she was a teenager and won the next one.

She liked the competition, but Hammer tired of the travel and burned out fast. She sold off cycling gear on eBay and seemed headed for retirement at the ripe age of 20. In 2004, instead of competing at the Athens Games, she took on odd jobs waitressing, hawking cell phones and working at a bagel shop in Colorado Springs. However, Hammer knew she had made a terrible mistake, and was soon back on new equipment.

Hammer's results were looking positive when she became the first U.S. cyclist to win an individual world title when she took home the gold medal in the individual pursuit. Though, that quickly changed over the next two years, which could easily have steered her into a second retirement.

Hammer suffered a ruptured disc in her back in May 2007, which contributed to much of her frustration. Instead of resting her back fully after the injury, she trained through the discomfort, taking off less time than doctors prescribed. After a series of third-place finishes at World Cup events, she headed for a familiar track in Carson, Calif., where she fared poorly, ending an unbeaten streak at the venue and leaving her in tears.

There was also a sense that her rivals were gunning for her at all costs. After Britain's Rebecca Romero outraced her at the world final in Manchester, UK in 2007, the neutral website of the UCI, the sport's international governing body, ran the headline 'Romero Hammers Hammer,' discouraging her further.

Though she went to the Olympics in Beijing with high hopes, Hammer was caught up in controversy before the races began. Soon after she arrived, she was among four cyclists who wore masks to fight off the city's notorious bad air, but the riders were accused of insulting the hosts with the public display of precaution. Things only got worse on the track: Hammer finished only fifth in individual pursuit and suffered a broken collarbone during a collision that knocked her out of the points race.

Her husband and coach, Andy Sparks, was entrusted with hiding any references to the Beijing races, because Hammer did not want to revisit them. Under Sparks' direction, she now logs less mileage in order to minimize wear on her body. The pair moved to the Swiss Alps for training after the UCI hired Sparks as its chief development coach.

In March, she became the first U.S. woman to win three medals at a world championship when she won silvers in the omnium and team pursuit, and gold in the individual pursuit, rallying for the fourth title. "Four is a good number," she said. "It was like a little switch that went off in my head. It's hard for me to let go of this event, but I have to focus on the Olympic pursuits. I still have something to do."

It was a foregone selection, but on Tuesday, Paula Radcliffe was officially named to the British Olympic marathon team for 2012. It will mark a fifth appearance at the Games for Radcliffe, who has won the New York Marathon three times and, in London eight years ago, she ran the fastest marathon in history (2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds). Despite the stellar resume, she has been star-crossed at the Olympics. In 2004, she pulled out of the marathon in Athens at mile 23 suffering from stomach cramps. In 2008, she ran despite a stress fracture in her left femur and still managed to finish 23rd.

Radcliffe may have ruffled a few feathers when she said the additional money that Prime Minister David Cameron sanctioned to double the budget for opening and closing ceremonies at the Games to $125 million might be better spent on more pressing social needs, given the country's recession. Radcliffe has never been shy about speaking up. As a lifelong anti-doping advocate, she is among the athlete urging both the World Anti-Doping Agency and the IOC to reconsider their refusal to impose lifetime bans on drug cheats.

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