Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Hunter Kemper sees London Olympics as last chance for triathlon medal

Hunter Kemper never saw it coming. It was the finale of last year's USA Triathlon Elite Race Series in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a race that would have no bearing on whether the three-time U.S. Olympian would get another chance to represent his country in London in 2012.

"It was a small race, kind of like the Double-A ball of triathlons," said Kemper, 36. "I really didn't have to be there."

It was Oct. 9, 2011, the tail end of the triathlon season. The next Olympic qualifying events were months away. But the best way to train hard and fast is to race hard and fast.

So there he was on the second lap of the bike course, barreling down a hill through a fenced-off transition area, hot on the rear wheel of the leader, when a fellow competitor who had been lapped on the swimming course stepped out from behind a barrier and into his path.

"He came out of nowhere," Kemper said. "I clipped and just went flying."

Kemper, who grew up outside Orlando, landed hard on the pavement and shattered his left elbow.

"You can watch the crash if you want," he said in a recent interview from his home in Boulder, Colo. "It is all over YouTube."

The man who caused the accident should have been pulled from the course. But somehow, race officials let him slide through.

"He should have never been there," Kemper said. "I thought it was over. I didn't want to go out like that."

Iron Kid

Kemper was born in North Carolina but grew up Longwood, and like many Florida kids, he spent his time playing soccer and tennis, and swimming in neighborhood pools.

"He played every sport I could think of," said his father, Tom Kemper. "He was especially good at baseball, and as tall as he is, nearly 6-3, he probably could have gone somewhere."

In the summer of 1986, Hunter took a break from his All-Star baseball schedule to do a triathlon in Clermont.

"I remember it was a 100-yard swim, 5K bike and 1K run," he said. "The whole thing took 17 minutes. I said to myself, 'Man, I can do this.' … I was hooked."

He went on to compete in the IronKids National Championship at Busch Gardens.

"I thought there was nothing cooler than riding my bike through the park," he said.

And he won several Meek & Mighty Triathlons in St. Petersburg.

"I figured out pretty quickly that I was good at the endurance sports," he said. "So eventually I focused on running and swimming."

At Wake Forest, he swam and ran track. His father said he was an above-average student. "I thought for sure he would have a promising business career," Tom Kemper said.

On graduation day in the spring of 1998, Hunter told his dad he wanted to move to Colorado Springs and become a professional triathlete.

"I asked him, 'Does that mean you are still on my payroll?' " the elder Kemper said. When he nodded yes, Tom Kemper responded, "Well, if that's your dream, let's do it."

Crowded house

In Colorado Springs, the site of the U.S. Olympic training facility, Hunter Kemper found a one-bedroom, one-bath house he shared with three other aspiring professional triathletes.

"Can you imagine what it must have been like living there?" Tom Kemper said, joking. "Hunter likes to shower three times a day."

But Hunter kept at it and moved through the ranks, with appearances in St. Petersburg's St. Anthony's Triathlon helping. He made the U.S. team in 2000 when Olympic triathlon made its debut in Sydney, finishing 17th overall. Four years later in Athens, he broke into the top 10, finishing ninth. And in Beijing in 2008, he did even better, seventh.

"There is so much pressure at that level," he said. "You train four years, nonstop, day after day, week after week, month after month, and then you get 1 hour and 50 minutes to get it right."

Hunter hoped 2012 would be his year, his chance to finally get the medal he had dreamed about since he was 10 years old.

But then came the crash.

Down but not out

Kemper had the first of five surgeries on the elbow in Colorado. Doctors used 13 screws to piece it together. Then in January, just when he thought he might be able to race again, a serious infection landed him back in the hospital.

"I had to be hooked up to an IV for six weeks," he said. "I was in a really bad place. I couldn't do anything."

Kemper thought his dream of a fourth chance at the Olympic podium was shot. "I couldn't swim for the whole month of February," he said. "I thought it was over."

Kemper missed the opening races of the 2012 season. He couldn't compete until May, when the International Triathlon Union World Championship Series rolled into San Diego for a race that had been designated a qualifier for the U.S. Olympic team.

"It was my last chance," he said. "I had to basically just go out there and do it."

And do it he did. Kemper finished fifth with a time of 1:49:17, not bad for a guy who a few months earlier was confined to a hospital bed.

"I am not saying that this is my last Olympics, but this is probably my best shot at a medal," he said. "In four years in Rio, I'd be a 40-year-old guy going up against 25-year-olds. So this time around, I'm going to give it everything I got."


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