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photo: Chris Didario / USA Triathlon
Kemper Shares about His Faith, His Future, and His Role as Multisport Ambassador
Multiple IronKids National Championships, three Olympic Team appearances, a Pan American gold medal, six elite national titles, a world No. 1 ranking, and an appearance on the Wheaties Box. For many, that would be enough to hang their hat on and call it a career. Add to that an 18-month span that was wracked with injury and no one would be blaming Hunter Kemper if he decided to hop on his bike and ride off into the sunset.
But the 32-year-old Kemper is not ready to move on just yet.
Though he was dealing with a hernia injury throughout the 2008 season, a more relaxed approach heading into the Beijing Olympic Games in August - and a shot of cortisone - allowed Kemper to "enjoy" the experience more and led to a seventh place finish (his best in three tries).
His post-Olympics experience has been a bit of a whirlwind. He traveled to California to race in his final event of the year, the Nautica Malibu Triathlon (not a great decision, by his own admission), made an appearance at the Elite and Age Group National Championships in Portland, Ore., flew to New York City for an appearance on The Today Show (though he got bumped off the air by four swimmers), was inducted into the Wake Forest University Sports Hall of Fame (along with NBA star Tim Duncan) in North Carolina, and then met with President George Bush, along with 500 other Olympians, at the White House the first week of October.
Finally back home last week, Kemper stopped moving long enough to go under the knife for his much-needed hernia surgery. He is anticipating returning to form in 2009 and is set to mount his assault on a fourth Olympic Games appearance four years down the road in London.
USA Triathlon had a chance to sit down with Kemper in Portland last month to talk about his career and where he sees himself down the road. Between autographs and chats with age groupers the day before the races, Kemper shared his joys and frustrations in 2008, his growth as a person and athlete in recent years, his dreams for the future of the sport, his role as triathlon ambassador and his plans for 2009 and beyond.
USA Triathlon: Some of the questions we've asked some of the age groupers are: "how'd you get involved in the sport and why did you stay involved? What is it that drives you?" Obviously, you've chosen it as a career, but if you weren't a professional, would you be so involved?
Hunter Kemper: I got started in the sport when I was 10 years old in 1986 back in the IronKids days in Clermont, Fla., just outside of Orlando. I got started as a kid and I loved it right from the get-go. I stayed involved because it's a great sport. It promotes health and fitness, which is great, I think, in this day and age. Getting people outdoors, concerned about their body, but just concerned about their overall health and wellness. And it's important to live that lifestyle, and I think triathlon gives you a great vehicle in order to do that.
I think it's great that I get to do a sport, the sport of triathlon, that I can make a living doing what I love to do. I'm passionate about the sport of triathlon and I'm passionate about kids and youth in our sport. So, I think if I can combine those two when I'm done with this (and I hopefully will have four more years...2012 is the end goal for me in the London Olympics). But after that I'd love to combine the youth and sport of triathlon, make it together and elevate the sport even more than it is now. I know we have a lot of USAT members out there. I think we're over 100,000 and beyond and we're really pushing strong and it's great. And not only that, but I was at a race last weekend where Jennifer Lopez was doing the race and Matthew McConaughey was doing the race, so I mean, it's kind of a cool thing to do, it's a cool accomplishment to have. I think that's important that our sport provides that. And one last thing, it's cool also that our sport is something where an age grouper can go out there and race and do the exact same course or the same area that the elites race. So they can kind of compare times and stuff like that. You can look at that and say, "oh look what Hunter did for a 10K. This is what I did." If you're watching a football game, you can't go out on the football field and, you know, and do that for an average fan.
USAT: As a recap of your season, where you are now and was everything that you put into this year worth it and where did it get you?
HK: I had a tough year. In February, I found out I had a strain in my lower right side and ended up having a hernia. It was a little disappointing when I'm reading more about a hernia and how the only way you can really fix it is through surgery. So this is the biggest year of my life, right? The Olympic Games in Beijing and I'm dealing with this now. And last year was kind of a rough year for me as well. I've had a tough 18 months but all in all I've really been excited about how this year went for me. I have nothing but great things to say about how I did this year. Tuscaloosa was my first race of the season. I didn't race a lot this season because of the hernia and what I had to go through. I didn't do very well there. Struggled, finished third, and was very disappointed. Going into the Des Moines race I was really struggling with my injury. I got a cortisone injection in that area about three weeks before the Hy-Vee race. And you know what? For me it was really like a gift from God - the fact that it really took that pain away. It took that pain enough away to where I could go out there and give it my all and be pain free on that day. I finished sixth at that event. I was top American. I qualified for the Olympic Games in the last spot. I had a lot of satisfaction in that event because of all that I had gone through in the past 18 months, with the injury and all of that. So I think for me, it was overcoming a lot, and going to the Olympic Games was a thrill. I got a second round of injections about a month before the Olympics. In my Olympics race, you know, I was ecstatic. I mean, I wanted to be on the podium; I felt like I'm good enough to be on the podium. But again, if you know what I've gone through this past year, these past 18 months, dealing with what I've dealt with, I was really happy with seventh place. I went through a lot just to get there and then to get there and to be top American and be right there in the mix... be in the hunt of the race the whole day and having my top performance. I'll hold my head high and I really am satisfied and very grateful for what I have accomplished this year.
USAT: Why did you decide not to race at Elite Nationals?
HK: I tried to do the Malibu Triathlon. It was kind of a dumb thing, trying to race. It didn't go very well. I don't know why. I was just kind of out there mulling around. It's not what I'm about. When I race I want to race to the best of my ability and not be halfway and have to say afterward why I didn't race well and have all these excuses. I feel like the sport itself deserves better than that. So when I come to race I want to be, you know, full throttle as much as I can. So I won't be racing this weekend, but I'll be out there supporting everybody and enjoying it and hopefully on the microphone a little bit. Signing autograph cards and doing all that. Just trying to give back a little bit to the sport.
USAT: If this had happened in the year leading into Athens, how do you think you would have approached it? What do you think your mindset would have been? Do you think you are a different person now than you were then?
HK: I think that is a great question. I think my approach for this Games was entirely different because of the past year and a half. The fact that I went through all those valleys the past 18 months with an SI joint injury last year, hernia this year, gave me a newfound perspective on the Olympics, on racing, on all of that. And I think for me, in Athens, I had that tunnel vision. It was all about Olympic medal or nothing at all. And basically I identified myself by who I was as a person by that and when I got ninth, I was crushed. I really was. I walked away and I think it motivated me to become number one in the world in 2005 and 2006 and led to better things in those years.
But my perspective on the Olympics, I didn't have that same kind of joy and satisfaction out of it. And for me in Beijing, it was really enjoyable. The whole Olympic Games were enjoyable. The Opening Ceremonies, the fact that I could appreciate that, the fact that I could go walk in that. I wasn't going to miss that for anything. It was my third Olympic Games and I wanted to experience that. The event itself, you know, my memories from Beijing are so vivid because I think I could appreciate what it was all about and just have that newfound perspective. In Athens, I have memories, but they're just not as fun, because it was all about finishing and result, result, result. Whereas this time around, with the injury, it's almost like I got my second chance. Or my third chance at the Olympic Games. And I hope to turn that newfound perspective not only in life but also in racing in general. Coming out here to Portland, the fact that I'm not racing and that normally I would be kind of upset with myself and "oh I shouldn't be hurt" or whatever. But why not just come out here and enjoy it. I'm not going to race, have fun with it and just enjoy the fact that I've been to the Olympic Games and people, maybe they watched it, maybe they didn't, but it's a chance for me to talk about triathlon and what it meant to me going to the Olympics. And what the age groupers did in order to get me there. The fact that USA Triathlon supports an elite level program like that, it means a lot.
USAT: Do you see yourself as an ambassador of the sport and why do you think that you fit that role?
HK: For me, I love to carry the flag. I love to be the ambassador of the sport of triathlon. I love this sport. And I think there's a lot of passion out there with people in the sport of triathlon, and I love talking about it. It's a part of me, and I think if we get more people tuned in to what the sport of triathlon is all about and make them aware of it, people are going to fall in love with it as well, just like I have. So I'm all about that. I love to do the stuff with the symposium this weekend, that's just one little thing. We get to talk about the Olympic experience. But every triathlon club I go to, I share my story about how I got started in the sport of triathlon and what the sport has meant to me. I try to give back that way. Every sponsor that I have, I try and talk about the sport and try and hold onto it not just for me personally, but just to try and stay in the sport as long as possible because I think sponsors are realizing that. The Toyotas of the world, you know. They realize that this sport is about health and wellness and they want to be associated with that with their new cars or whatever it is. Amino Vital is the same way. So all my sponsors, you try to bring them and say this is a great sport and you can be involved with that, and I think they realize that, too. Our sport is very small in a way, when you look at it on a national scale, but it's big in a way when you come to an event like this; it's a very big, big event. You see all these bikes, all these people coming out to a race, that's a big deal to them. It's enjoyable. If I could get to as many people and talk about my passion for the sport as possible, I'd love to do it.
USAT: What goals do you have or dreams do you have about the sport, where it goes?
HK: I think for me, my goals and dreams lie in children and youth and getting kids started at an early age in our sport. Making it become kind of one of those things that kids go out and play soccer, they do swimming, but not only do they do club swimming, they do club triathlon, or they do triathlon in general. That it becomes a sport that's on the radar screen for kids at an early age. That they're not inside playing video games, but they're outside enjoying being healthy and getting involved in a sport like this. Then, hey, that's kind of how I got started, so that's where I love that avenue. The fact that if I didn't have that outlet, I know I wouldn't be here where I am today. I would have chosen some other direction, some other sport, I probably wouldn't be nearly as good. My passion is at the youth level. To see those kids go through transitions and go through all that kind of stuff, it's awesome. And when I retire I want to be a part of that, I want to be doing kids camps, doing kids clinics, doing kids races. Just getting the sport out there in our youth, whether it be from our school system, or club-wise, and let them know, hey, there are other alternatives besides your big main three sports or your other main two sports that they've heard about, you know. Because people, I think, at an early age haven't heard about kids triathlon don't know very much about the sport of triathlon. It's still very much a niche sport. But just trying to broaden that niche and make it as mainstream as possible.
USAT: Let's get back to you competitively. How are you approaching these next four years? Obviously you have some things you need to deal with injury-wise but what's your offseason going to look like and how are you going to approach 2009?
HK: Offseason for me is to get the hernia taken care of, get surgery, get it done as quick as possible, get recovered as quick as possible, and then enjoy next year. I'd love to do a little bit of mix, I want to come into the World Cup races. Commit to some of that. But also commit to some of the non-drafting races as well. And having the opportunity to share my story but also get back and build awareness, and race the Lifetime Fitness Series. It's an off year as far as Olympics. We have a buildup now of four years before 2012, and to get back and enjoy that. And four years from now, as we get close to the Olympic Games, diverting more of my attention toward the Olympics again and going toward 2012. I'm 32. I know it is kind of older, but there are plenty of people in our sport who have shown the way. All the women on the 2004 team - Barb Lindquist, Sheila Taormina, Susan Williams. Even this year with Julie Ertel. Also, Greg Bennett. And when you go two more years, you know, you're right there. You're just two years away. You've got to commit. You've got to go for it. That's where my next four years lie. Enjoy next year in getting healthy and then gradually gearing toward 2012 and London.
USAT: When you're not coming off an injury, that year after the Olympics, is it a lot easier on your mentally?
HK: It is easier mentally. In 2005 I think it was easier for me psychologically in that I was No.1 in the world. It took a lot of the pressure off. Next year it will be kind of a mix, trying to get back to some of the old-school, non-drafting events, but staying involved in the World Cup racing, too, and not losing my footing in there, because it's so competitive.
USAT: Do you see yourself as having a role in athlete development, in keeping the U.S. among the top countries in the world?
HK: I would love to play a role. It's hard for me from the political side of it. I'm definitely not the type to serve as an athlete rep or on a board of directors. It's hard on me mentally. At the end of the season, I may put my two cents in, and I think it's good that USAT at least listens to the athletes and asks what we need to do to improve upon the next four years so we don't end up fighting for our third spot. I'd love to be involved in that in more a year-end way.
USAT: In your opinion as a competitor, where do you see the ideal triathlete coming from?
HK: It would be great to have kids involved at the youth level. But the important thing is to at least have an elite-level background in swimming or running at some point... ideally in college. Choose your weakness. If you're a kid growing up in triathlon, focus on something you're not good at. That's what I did with my running. You look at someone like Andy Potts, with a swimming background. He was a great swimmer, but he at least had that experience in swimming to know what it takes to compete at an elite level. It's easier to transfer that over to the elite level in the sport of triathlon. It's important to go the collegiate route. It's going to be hard for the U.S. to have a world champion at the age of 23. Our country and our system don't work that way. I think club sports are great, but I don't think that's the way to become an ideal triathlete. If you're involved in a club sport, like triathlon in college, you never get that high level of racing. When you get to the pro ranks, you realize, wow, these guys are running sub-30 minute 10ks. That's fast. Can you become that type of athlete coming from a club sport? I don't think so.
USAT: Where have you drawn your strength to keep going over these past 18 months?
HK: For me, I want to talk as much as I can about my faith and walk my walk with God. I struggle with it at times; sometimes I don't feel like I am a good spokesperson to talk about my faith. In actuality, we all struggle. I draw my strength from God. He's given me so much peace and comfort. To know there's more to life than sport or triathlon. You have to believe that there is more. A lot of people believe there is a God, but my personal relationship with Jesus Christ and being able to open my Bible in the morning, to me is a big deal. It puts my heart in a place all day. Some people may ask what's different about Hunter Kemper. They may answer that he's a really good guy. But they see me race and hear my testimony and say, wow, he draws his strength from God. Let me learn more about that. I've learned so much about being as open as I can about my faith. I feel like for a while there, it was hidden a lot and I didn't talk about it for fear of what people might think about me, the negative connotations about that. I don't care anymore. I don't care what my sponsors think. I do care, but I don't care if I lose a sponsor because of that. I don't really need them to begin with. They aren't really a part of my team. I look to other leaders as well. When I see Ryan Hall, an Olympic marathoner, and hear his testimony, it's awesome. To hear him talk about his walk with God in that way, it's really cool and makes me admire him that much more. I draw my strength from my relationship with God. And for what I've been through the last 18 months, you have to draw your strength from there. It's been a valley in itself as far as triathlon, but it's been a gain as far as my walk.
USAT: Tell us about your involvement with A-T Children's Project.
HK: These two girls that I met in Grand Rapids, Mich., Kate and Olivia Veldink suffer from a disease called ataxia-telangiectasia. It affects around 500-600 kids in the entire country, so it's very rare. What's sad about it is they usually end up wheelchair bound by the age of 10 and they usually end up dying from the disease by their late teens or early 20s. It's sad because they know when their life is going to end. It's horrible to think that, especially when you're talking about kids. So these two girls touched my heart and touched my life. The race they use to raise awareness and raise money is the Disney Half Marathon and Marathon. It's January 13. I hopefully can be a spokesperson for them and for A-T Children's Project, which is their foundation. Go to http://www.Atcp.org and learn more about it or go to HunterKemper.com and learn about how I am involved. I will be fighting this fight for a long time.
More about Hunter's Involvement with A-T Children's Project
While in Grand Rapids, Michigan in late in 2007, Kemper met Dave and Mary Veldink and learned that two of their children, Kate (age ten) and Olivia (age seven) had both been diagnosed with ataxia-telangiectasia, or A-T. Kemper and his wife, Valerie, were touched by hearing their story. He decided to run the WALT DISNEY WORLD® Half Marathon in January 2008 with the Veldinks, their friends and family, and dozens of other A-T families who come each January to raise funds and awareness to find a cure for A-T. "I was hoping to win the race for Kate and Olivia and all the kids suffering from A-T, but unfortunately I could only pull out a fourth place finish (1:08.28). I had so much fun and I felt proud and privileged to race for this special cause," says Kemper. "Our hearts will never be the same," adds Valerie, "and Hunter and I are very excited about our involvement with the A-T Children's Project."
The A-T Children's Project is a nonprofit organization formed to raise funds to support and coordinate first-rate biomedical research projects, scientific conferences and a clinical center aimed at finding a cure or life-improving therapies for ataxia-telangiectasia. To learn more about the A-T Children's Project, visit http://www.atcp.org/.
A-T is a progressive, degenerative disease that affects a startling variety of body systems. Children with A-T appear normal at birth, but the early signs of the disease usually appear during the second year of life. A-T causes the relentless loss of muscle control, usually making children dependent on wheelchairs by age 10 and making it difficult for them to read, speak and eat. Children with A-T also have a strikingly high risk of cancer. Although considered a rare "orphan" disease, A-T may actually be much more common than we know, since many children with A-T, particularly those who die at a young age, are never properly diagnosed. There currently is no cure for A-T and no way to slow the progression of the disease. Research on A-T may help many more common diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. To learn more about A-T, visit http://www.atcp.org/.