After representing the U.S. in track and field at the 2012 Paralympic Games, Chris Hammer was invited to the White House for a congratulatory visit. For many, either a White House visit or a Paralympic appearance would be a fitting final chapter for an incredible athletic career that had reached its successful end. But not for Hammer.
“I was sitting in the Washington Dulles airport following the trip to the White House when I saw an article that triathlon would be contested for the first time ever at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games,” Hammer said. “From the airport, I emailed the USA Paratriathlon Director and introduced myself.”
By the following spring, he was attending USAT training camps; in 2016, he was at the Paralympic Games once more, this time as a triathlete.
Almost a decade after sending that email, Hammer is now taking on a new challenge: This time, as the first paratriathlete to have earned a standard USA Triathlon elite license—ie., the same license that Ben Hoffman and Andy Potts have, a license that now entitles him to line up against Jan Frodeno or Kristian Blummenfelt. In 2022, Hammer is competing professionally in Ironman events. He is also training full-time with USAT’s Project Podium for Olympic hopefuls—the first paratriathlete to do so.
“This is the first time in my life I will be taking a professional approach to being an athlete,” said Hammer, who was born with one hand, the result of a congenital condition. “Up until this point, I have always either been a full-time student or had a full-time job while simultaneously pursuing sport. Now, outside of family, triathlon is the priority in my life.”
Living the pro life was an option for Hammer in the past. During his push for the 2016 and 2021 Paralympiccs, Hammer was invited to join the resident paratriathlon team at the training center in Colorado Springs, but he was enjoying his work as a triathlon coach at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia. Moving simply didn’t appeal to him.
“Coaching is one of those professions where you have so much fun you can’t believe you are getting paid to do it,” Hammer said. “I was definitely hesitant to leave.”
That perspective changed during the 2021 Paralympics, however. “On the start line of the Tokyo Games, I wasn’t nervous in the least bit, because I knew in my heart that I did everything in my power to be as prepared as I could be,” he said. “Yet, I still finished in fourth place. I realized that even though I did everything I could given the situation that I was in, it still wasn’t enough to crack the podium. The only way to change that was to change my situation.”
With the support of his wife, children, and the athletes at Davis & Elkins, Hammer accepted an invite to train with Project Podium. “I loved coaching at the collegiate level. But I also want to be the best that I can be no matter what it is that I am doing, and there just weren’t enough hours in the day to be the best coach, athlete, and family man that I could be. Leaving the coaching profession was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.”
It’s a decision that’s starting to pay off. Since the Tokyo Games, Hammer has won the PTS5 title at the 2021 World Triathlon paratri championship and earned that elite license (also commonly called a “pro card”) at Ironman Augusta 70.3 with a time of 4:01:14. Yes, he can race both non-para pro races and compete in elite paratriathlon.
Hammer credits this upward trajectory to consistency. “It’s not always exciting to be an endurance athlete, but those who embrace the daily grind are the ones who tend to experience success,” he said.
Now, he plans to ride that upward trajectory into a full-time pro long-course career against those familiar pro names we know and then to try to qualify again for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. He might be 35, but he hasn’t yet hit a final chapter.
“I like that I’m still able to learn and get faster every day,” he said. “I just really like trying to be the best I can be at whatever it is that I am doing.”