Going for Gold

Sarah Ulmer’s sporting success and bubby personality has seen her snapped up for celebrity product endorsements. Now she has her own brand to showcase.

It’s no surprise that champion cyclist Sarah Ulmer is one of our most marketable athletes. With a long successful career culminating in a stunning gold medal winning performance at the Athens Olympics, where she broke the world record by an incredible six seconds, it’s easy to see why she’s a long-standing favourite with top brands including Purina, McDonald’s, NZ Beef & Lamb, Vodafone, Air NZ and Ford Motor Co. The fact that she is also a good-looking, fit, Kiwi woman, with a down-to-earth, honest approach only adds to her appeal.

As she nears the twilight of her incredibly successful cycling career, Sarah has taken her marketability a step further, launching her own brand, SUB (Sarah Ulmer Brand) around a year ago. As well as selling a line of women’s cycles, bike wear, active wear and sports water, SUB also runs women’s only events, incorporating cycling, running and walking. The business grew from Sarah’s desire to make sport and fitness more affordable and accessible to women. “We want our products to encourage everyday Kiwi chicks to live a healthy, balanced life, and to get our there and get amongst it,” she says.

Sarah and Roger Mortimer (her cycling manager, now business partner) ran a couple of women’s only bike rides in 2003 and 2004 as a precursor to launching the business. “After the Olympics, when I was pretty sure I was going to hang the wheels up for good, we decided to expand the events to include running and walking. We also started working on the SUB bike range – which is especially engineered and designed for the girls.”

While she enjoyed putting her energies into her new business, it didn’t take Sarah long to realise she hadn’t quite got cycling out of her system. After reaching the pinnacle in her event, the 3000m individual pursuit, she decided to shift her focus to road racing to provide her with one final challenge in the sport. “I’m still very much in the game, or trying to be, as an injury has prevented me giving the new event a really good nudge. I’m not looking to continue international competitive cycling long term, but want to see what I can do in a different event before I retire for good.”

Balancing her training with the business is a juggling act. Sarah says she couldn’t do it without Roger Mortimer, who currently manages most of the day to day running of SUB. Sarah’s partner and coach Brendon Cameron also plays an integral part in the business – managing SUB Bikes and bike wear. SUB Bikes are designed by Sarah and Brendon with Avanti, and are sold in partnership with Shepherd Industries through a network of 200 bike stores in New Zealand and Australia. Sarah test drives all the new designs herself. “We have had good sales and lots of really positive feedback from our customers.”

The SUB Activewear range, with its “good comfortable sportwear to fit real Kiwi chicks”, is also selling well in selected sports stores nationwide. “We put a huge effort into researching the sizing of New Zealand women before designing the range,” says Sarah. While designed and marketed in New Zealand the clothing is manufactured off-shore. “We wanted the clothing to be affordable, as we are trying to break down barriers for women getting into sport. We looked seriously at manufacturing here, but it wasn’t going to make it achievable for us to reach our price point.”

The SUB Events have also been well supported, with an average of around 500 women taking part in each of the four North Island events, and one South Island event held this summer. Sarah rides the events herself alongside the competitors to encourage and support them. “It’s been awesome. Some women who haven’t been on a bike in 25 years are participating. If we can play even a small part in changing women’s approach to exercise, then I’m thrilled.”  Sarah has gained sponsorship from Molenberg for the events. “They have the same philosophy of living a healthy, balanced lifestyle, which fits perfectly with us.” SUB Sports Water was also recently launched, and there are other new products in the pipeline that will be complementary to the existing range.

With Sarah still away so much training and competing, she says Roger Mortimer ensures the smooth running of the business as well as the continuation of quality relationships with her sponsors. “Roger is very much hands-on in maintaining and ensuring strong two-way relationships with my sponsors. He is also extremely proactive in coming up with new concepts and campaigns that we can use to help them.”

While Sarah has excellent relationships with her sponsors she was unprepared for the backlash when she endorsed the launch of McDonald’s new salad menu – with some media commentators making stinging attacks against her involvement. “Thankfully I was out of the country when the controversy hit. I hadn’t really had bad press before, and it was really hard. I have a long-standing relationship with McDonalds, and really believed in the campaign to encourage people to make healthy choices. To see the stuff being printed that was contradictory to what we were trying to achieve was difficult, but that’s human nature. People have different opinions, and I guess it would be bloody boring if everyone thought the same.” Sarah says she would never accept money to endorse a product she wouldn’t use, eat or drive herself. “I have turned down sponsorship offers because I didn’t believe in the product.”

While she is still training hard, Sarah says the pressure is nothing like prior to the Olympics, where she and Brendan spent eight months “eating, sleeping and breathing” training. “It was wickedly intense, unhealthy and unbalanced, but we got an amazing result with the gold medal, and world record. I couldn’t do it again in terms of where I’m at in my life now, but it gave Brendan and I the confidence to try new things, and taught us that it is possible to totally exceed your own expectations.”

Sarah says she is looking forward to devoting more of her energy to the business on her retirement from cycling. “Having SUB has brought balance into my life. I now spend as much of my day on that as I spend training, which is good for me both as a person, and as an athlete.”

Sarah’s Top Tips for Success :
Don’t be afraid to ask people for advice.
Remember the basics and do them well.
Be prepared to be in for a long haul.
Surround yourself with people you trust, and share your passion and vision. Great people working towards a common goal can gain wicked momentum.
Just give it a nudge – find a reason to do something, rather than an excuse not to!