Athens Olympic gold medallist, Sarah Ulmer, was last night awarded her country's biggest sporting honour, the Halberg Award, in recognition of her brilliant 2004 on the velodrome.
The highlight was when Ulmer took the gold for New Zealand in the women's individual pursuit at the Athens Olympics with a time of 3.24.537, smashing the world record by almost six seconds. It was a performance the New Zealand Herald believes is "hailed as one of the greatest performances by any athlete at the Olympics", a statement indicative of the esteem the cyclist is held in her country.
Earlier in the year, she had also won the country's first gold medal on the track at the world championships in Melbourne, when she gave a sign of things to come in Athens she broke the world record for the first time. Ulmer told the NZ Herald the highlight for her at the Olympics "wasn't when I was handed a medal by a Greek guy I didn't know, it was the New Zealand team that came to watch me at the velodrome and right before I went to accept my medal, the team members there gave me a haka (the Maori war dance used by NZ teams prior to competition, designed to intimidate their opponents).
"Being saluted in a Kiwi way like that when you're a squillion miles away from home...is the most powerful feeling in the world."
Ulmer admitted the haka by the men's hockey team brought her to tears in Athens, and once again, they performed it for her at the awards ceremony. In addition to the overall Halberg Award, Ulmer was also presented with the Sportswomen of the Year award. In her acceptance speech, she thanked her sponsors and boyfriend and coach, Brendan Cameron.
While Ulmer has been missing in action since Athens - prompting rumours (since quashed) that she was planning to retire - the cyclist has been maximising the impact of her gold medal to promote the sport in her country. This was recognised earlier this year by fellow Kiwi cyclist Liz Williams, who told Cyclingnews, "Sarah has been amazing, she's putting so much in and helping boost the sport's profile," said Williams. "After Sarah won just about every schoolgirl is getting on a bike and Sarah has been really generous in going to schools and encouraging kids to get into it. It's huge."
Unlike elite cyclists across the Tasman in Australia, who face a largely apathetic or even hostile media in their country despite six gold medals in Athens, Ulmer is undoubtedly New Zealand's golden girl and cycling is in favour.
Australia's media adores swimmer Ian Thorpe, with his metrosexual image and fashion label. In New Zealand, it's Ulmer's down-to-earth approach that endears her to the public. For her big night at the Halberg Award, Ulmer admitted to not knowing who designed her black dress, because she'd only just borrowed it from a friend.
Ulmer is also widely respected by her fellow competitors, so much so that Australian Katie Mactier, who'd picked up two silver medals behind Ulmer at both the worlds and the Olympics, made a flying visit across the Tasman to be present at the award ceremony. "I wouldn't have missed this for the world," Mactier told the New Zealand Herald.
Overall, athletes who compete on two wheels - or indeed with two oars - cleaned up at the sports awards night. Athens triathlon gold medallist Hamish Carter was presented with the Sportsman of the Year award, while twin sisters Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell, who took the gold medal in Athens in the double scull (rowing), were awarded Team of the year. Further, the organisers also recognised the achievements of Health Net professional cyclist Greg Henderson, who won the scratch race at the 2004 track world championships, while world champion downhill cyclist Vanessa Quinn was nominated in the Sportswomen of the Year category.