The Olympic Games are the pinnacle of performance for most national sports federations and their athletes. But what does it take to lead an underdog nation to Olympic glory?
Andy Sparks is the head coach and director at Performance United, a training centre in Colorado, USA, with a track record any nation would be proud of. In his professional career, Andy has led three teams at the Olympic Games, worked with talented athletes and coaches from multiple countries and cultures, and is married to eight-time World Champion and four-time Olympic silver medalist, Sarah Hammer, with whom he launched Performance United with in 2009.
“As co-founders, our shared passion is assisting small ‘underdog’ cycling nations in identifying and developing their most-promising talent, and then empowering them to battle it out with the ‘big boys’ such as Great Britain and Cycling Australia.” Andy says.
And it works. Along with their team of coaches, they have assisted in producing the first-ever Korean and African World Champions, the first-ever Turkish European Champion, and the first Irish World Champion in 200 years. That’s no small feat.
Sarah and Andy head up a team of hardworking full-time coaches of varied backgrounds, as well as in-house head mechanic, Chris Murray. Coach Robert Mayfield operates as an assistant coach and athlete mentor now that Sarah is riding less. Robert himself is a top-level national rider on the velodrome. Coach Cass Barratt is a retired Marine. “His military background promotes the pursuit of excellence and teaches our young athletes the benefits of discipline and hard work,” says Andy. In addition to Coach Cass, Coach Rob and Super Mechanic Chris, Performance United also have an army of performance partners and volunteer supporters that believe in their mission and provide priceless support.
Winning with Wattbike
Sarah and Andy launched Performance United in Mallorca, Spain, in late 2009 after working for the World Cycling Centre (WCC) in Switzerland and seeing first-hand what a tremendous impact the centre had on assisting small and aspiring cycling nations and their athletes. It was during their time at the WCC that they came across the Wattbike, and decided that it would be the perfect testing and training tool to take with them to Performance United.
“I reached out directly to Wattbike’s head sports scientist, Eddie Fletcher, to speak about a performance partnership. Eddie came to Mallorca shortly after to discuss the project and we were instantly impressed with Eddie’s expertise and Wattbike’s potential as a training aid. Over the last three Olympic Games, Eddie has continued to advise our organisation on workouts and talent ID protocols which have produced some historic results since 2009,” Andy states.
“Our Wattbikes continue to be our number one performance tool with track cycling transitioning to a new paradigm of bigger and bigger gears, and faster and faster speeds. Wattbikes are even more important than before as they allow us to use even bigger gears than we can ride on the velodrome.”
Andy understands that achieving athletic success is about achieving the numbers that equal success. “In cycling, especially track cycling, there are certain numbers that need to be achieved to win that we call ‘race demand.’ If you can achieve these numbers, you will be successful.
“We believe in the motto: what you measure, you treasure. Our company philosophy is that if we can measure it, we can improve it. And if we are improving, we are winning. Once we have quantified the unique race demands for each project, we move on to planning and execution and this is where our arsenal of Wattbikes comes in to play. They are our primary tool to achieve success for our athletes as they provide a low-variable and highly accurate training platform.”
Meet Michael Stevens
Performance United athlete, Michael Stevens, is a firm believer in the Wattbike. A retired US Army veteran and multiple-time national champion and national record holder in Men’s Tandem track cycling, Michael was first introduced to the bike as a tool to improve his cycling performance back in 2016 while he was training out of Adaptive Training Foundation in Dallas, Texas, and now trains with Brian Abers at the Performance United Colorado Springs facility.
“The Wattbike sessions are vital and truly game-changing,” Michael states. “The environment in which we train is filled with the accolades and jerseys of athletes who have come and gone on those bikes with us. All the hours of sweat and pain (with the occasional swear word or three), and the bikes just ask for more. I wish they would stop that!
“Of all the tools I have used, and currently use throughout my training blocks, the Wattbike remains an absolute staple for performance measurement, self-awareness and accountability. The majority of my training is on a bike paired with my teammate and power figures are relative. What matters is how fast the time splits and leg speed show after we dig with everything we have. The Wattbike allows me individually to measure just how deep my dig can go; how brutally far I can push myself. It directly translates to the effort we throw into every track session here in Colorado Springs.”
What's next for Performance United?
Fast forward 10 years and the Performance United Team have been trusted to assist almost 20 countries in achieving their national team objectives. The organisation's accolades include three world records, five Olympic medals, 16 World Championship Titles and 30 World Championship medals.
Andy says: “Every country in the world has extremely talented athletes and our goal is to help our partner countries better actualise their talent. We achieve this goal primarily through supplying a competitive and structured training group for their athletes to take part in as well as providing world champion and Olympic medal mentors to learn from.
“Each partnership is extremely unique and being part of these journeys is always incredibly rewarding. Our focus is now to showcase Colorado Springs as the world’s-best altitude training location. Heading into Tokyo 2020 we are focusing on assisting our primary partners such as Singapore and Trinidad and Tobago as well as our Team USA athletes.”