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The Veteran: Four-Time Olympian Hunter Kemper
Last Christmas was a busy time in Hunter Kemper’s life. His wife, Val, had just given birth to their third son, Case, and his other boys, Davis, now 5, and Hudson, now 2, orbited around their Colorado Springs home in a swirl of holiday excitement and toddler-infused exuberance. The scent of egg casserole and monkey bread, Val’s traditional Christmas brunch, wafted from the kitchen as laughter from the kids and extended family filled the house. It was picturesque. Perfect, even. And it should have been one of the happiest times in Kemper’s life.
But the joy was marred with pain: Weakened by a staph infection, his future in the sport uncertain, Kemper was a mere shadow of his former self. The three-time Olympian, Wheaties box cover boy, and one of the greatest American triathletes of all time could not even get off the couch. He didn’t know if he would ever fully recover from the broken elbow he sustained after a collision at a race in October and the ensuing surgery and infections that landed him in the hospital numerous times and kept him away from training and racing for months.
But as Kemper lay in the hospital, and later at home attached to an IV line pumping him with antibiotics for 90 minutes twice a day, six words kept running through his head: “I’m not going down like this.”
Indeed, Kemper was not going to let what he calls a “crazy accident” stall his career. Or the 13 screws holding his elbow together. Or the multiple surgeries that followed between October and January, including three just to scrub out his infected wound.
And he would certainly not let this setback curtail his Olympic dreams.
But who was Kemper kidding? Leading up to May’s Olympic qualifying race in San Diego, he hadn’t competed in seven months. He had only weeks of full-time training under his belt — because of a PICC line inserted in his arm for the IV, he couldn’t swim for months. He could only run and bike, and even those efforts were tough. And while other Americans raced around the world in preparation for San Diego and posed for magazine spreads as our country’s best bets for the Olympics, Kemper purposefully remained out of the spotlight, quietly training in Colorado Springs, focused solely on his own recovery and fitness.
“I was in a dark, dark place, but the fact that I was able to run and bike, even at an easy level, helped,” he recalls. “I was out of shape, but I was healing, and that helped to motivate me.”
Determined to be on that start line in San Diego, Kemper made his final decision about the event just four weeks prior. He’d be there. His workouts were improving, and he could actually bend his arm again, so what did he have to lose? However the race turned out, he’d be satisfied merely making the attempt.
“I asked myself, ‘What will my life look like if I don’t make the team?’ There was a chance it wouldn’t happen, and I was at peace with that,” he says. “Being on the Olympic team again was not going to define who I am as a person. I would always be a three-time Olympian. I’d always have my family, my friends and my faith. Not making the team wouldn’t change that.”
Once the gun went off, though, Kemper never gave that what-if another thought. With a solid swim, a strong bike and a blazing 30:27 10k split, he propelled himself into fifth place (he needed a top-nine finish to qualify), becoming just the third triathlete ever to make all four Olympic triathlon events. Whether it was determination, experience, or even just a touch of divine intervention, everything clicked for Kemper on that sunny Saturday afternoon. After crossing the finish line, he once again hoisted the American flag above his head in celebration as throngs of fans chanted “U.S.A.” around him. It was, as Kemper recalls, ”One of the greatest moments of my life.”
And a moment that he hopes to repeat this August in London. Kemper does not plan on taking his fourth Olympic campaign lightly. He wants to win. With a career-best seventh-place finish in Beijing, Kemper has locked his sights on the podium and the first-ever Olympic medal for American men in triathlon. From here until August, he’ll stay close to Colorado Springs, quietly training like he did before San Diego, focusing on the one thing that has eluded him in his 14-year-long pro career.
“To win a medal has been my dream since I’ve been a kid,” he says. “It’s unfinished business. I’ve worked so hard and so long to get to this point and I want to capture that moment. I want to stand on the podium and celebrate.”