Hunter Kemper had an easier time making the 2000 and 2004 Olympics as he placed top American in all U.S. Olympic Trials and qualification events for those years. After that he was the ITU World Cup number 1 in 2005, made the cover of a Wheaties box and started 2006 like a house afire. Then things got tough.
In January 2007 through February 2008, he battled with a sacroiliac joint injury that kept him out of training and competition much of the time. Just as he recovered enough to race the U.S. Olympic Trials and qualification events in Beijing in September 2007 (finished behind Jarrod Shoemaker) and Tuscaloosa in spring of 2008 (finished behind Matt Reed), he regrouped and won a tough duel with Andy Potts at Hy-Vee to make his third Olympic team. Just as things were looking up, he incurred a sport hernia that left him obtaining a Therapeutic Use Exemption from USADA to get injections of cortisone so he could race in Beijing. And once again, with just enough training time, he rose to the occasion, scoring 7th place, his best ever Olympics finish.
In the past four years, Kemper fought off a recurrence of the sacroiliac joint injury in 2010 and a broken collarbone, but saved his best medical escape act for last. On October 9, 2011, a fellow competitor at the USA Triathlon Elite Race Series event in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina ran in front of Kemper as he was riding his bike at nearly 30 miles per hour through the transition area home stretch. The crash broke Kemper's elbow, requiring 13 screws, five operations and extended treatment for a subsequent infection.
When Kemper lined up for the final U.S. Men's Olympic Qualification event in San Diego this weekend, he had not raced in seven months. No one outside his family and coach Cliff English knew if he still had enough to beat a rising contingent of talented American men like Jarrod Shoemaker, Matt Chrabot, Manny Huerta and Greg Billington.
In fact, cool hand Hunter lay 4th American and outside the top 10 midway through the final 10k run before turning on the jets to pass them all and finish a joyful 5th with a sizzling 30:28 10k.
Slowtwitch: How does is feel to make your fourth Olympic team?
Hunter Kemper: To hear that that crowd at the finish chanting USA! USA! It doesn’t get any better than that. It was unbelievable.
ST: How did you save it for the end when most everyone was fading? For a while you were 4th -- then you went your best at the end?
Hunter: I felt like that is kind of my style. It was a hard day out there. It was a long day. It’s a three lap run and I just kind of hid away at first. I knew that the last 5k would be my strength. I am a strength 10k runner. I use all 30 or 31 minutes. And I need every single minute to count. That's how I race. I don't go out in 61 for the first quarter. That's not really my style.
ST: Was the wind a factor?
Hunter: It was windy but we deal with all those conditions all the time. The wind on the trails and back on the boardwalk wasn't that big of a deal. Coming in on the bike, you kind of want to get behind somebody. It was mental more than anything else.
ST: There was a time before the race when you took a moment to be by yourself? What were you thinking?
Hunter: I was talking to God. I am a strong believer and then I just felt like my story is already written. He has a plan for me. I guess He wanted me to go back for my 4th Olympic Games. If not, I was going to be at ease with myself either way. He had a role for me -- and everybody stayed safe. So I get to go back to the Olympics -- and my story is yet to be told.
ST: When you had that accident at Myrtle Beach last October, your elbow was fractured and you had a very long, very difficult recovery. .
Hunter: Yes. I was crashed into in October at a race in Myrtle Beach and I got a staph infection about 10 weeks later. From January 1, I was out for eight weeks. I couldn't swim. I had a picc line put in my uninjured arm, that comes into your vein.
ST: You had been laying low with any news of your medical issues.
Hunter: Before this race I didn't want to talk about my troubles. I avoided the media and didn’t do interviews because I didn’t want people to know how bad I was hurting. I thought that would give people an advantage to know I was pretty much out of it. I didn't want people to know where I was.
ST: How did you have such a great race in your first rime back in competition since the accident?
Hunter: I didn't race this year because I didn't have time. I was trying to get myself to be 100 percent right to the very end and I guess I showed that was the case today. I needed every single day of recovery .
ST: Did you ever wonder if you would get to the start line here?
Hunter: Absolutely. On January 1, I started on an IV bag with a pretty strong antibiotic for an hour and a half, two times a day. That went on for six weeks. When you are on an IV drip for an hour and a half twice a day you are in a really bad state. I was doing my own medication and it’s bad. So at that point, all you have is your support people and your family. I didn’t even know when I would be back racing .
ST: How rough was it?
Hunter: I had five surgeries on this elbow to clean it out and wash it out. It is the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with in my life.
ST: What happened in the crash?
Hunter: Another athlete had been lapped in the swim. He should have been stopped on the course and not allowed to keep on racing. But the referees didn’t catch him and he ran right in front of me when I was 45 kilometers per hour. Let's put it this way. I am glad I am going back to my fourth Olympics. And that this crash didn’t cause me to not make the team. That's all I have to say.
ST: In 2008 you went through similar process with a really bad injury. Is this your style? Coming back from career threatening injury?
Hunter: I don't know if it is my style. But I think it is my story. It's not like I want it that way. I had a sacroiliac joint injury followed by a sports hernia in 2007 and 2008 and I had cortisone injections then. But all you have to do is be healthy on the day. Just two months at the end of the Trials. That's all I had. Ten weeks of really good healthy training and that's all I really needed to finish 7th. So, I don't try to plan it. It just ends up that way. It makes for a better story I guess.
ST: How did you keep your cool when you were running 4th behind Manny Huerta, Jarrod Shoemaker and Greg Billington?
Hunter: Billington was having a great day [he ran 30:59 and finished 15th] and Manny was having a great day. They were all going for it. And that does lead to a bit of anxiety. But ultimately you have to run your race. You gotta do what you have to do and believe it will work. Hopefully those guys were running a little bit over their heads and that turned out to be true. Midway through the run I was the 4th American -- and only two are going to London. And two only if those two are in the top 9. There was definitely some doubt in that race about the halfway mark. But with one lap to go on the run I knew it was within reach. You get a lot of confidence as you are passing people towards the end. You can feel it. It's building, it's building, it's building -- and so you feel really good about yourself when things are going in the right direction.
ST: Did you turn around to see Manny's reaction?
Hunter: No. I was on my own little world afterwards and I was pretty emotional. It was a special moment to hear the crowd chanting USA! USA! I mean, here in San Diego, at the birthplace of triathlon -- it doesn’t get any better than that.
ST: What does it mean to be a four time Olympian?
Hunter: It means a lot of hard work. A lot of dedication and a lot of faith. It's a special thing. I think they could put all of us who have a chance to do it in triathlon in one cab in London. Simon Whitfield, myself, maybe Tim Don, Ivan Rana and a few more. It's a special club and I am glad to be a part of it. I may not have medals like Simon [Whitfield] and Bevan [Docherty] -- not yet -- but not for lack of trying.
ST: After a 17th, a 9th, and 7th in your first three Olympics, can you make the podium?
Hunter: I keep trying to get there. But there are more and more talented athletes coming up. The Brownlee brothers [Alistair and Jonathan] and Javier Gomez are raising the bar and changing the sport. I am not going to lie. It was a difficult race with a difficult field today, but there were certain guys who were not here. If Alistair is here and Javier is here, 5th place becomes a little more difficult. I was top American and made the Olympic team, so it really doesn't matter. When I looked at the field, I thought top 9 was certainly within reach. But when you go to Madrid the field there is totally stacked. I know that what I did today will not get it done in London. I have to up my game. But I've come from a long way since February when I had an IV drip in my arm.
ST: What has your coach Cliff English done to get you so well prepared?
Hunter: I think my coach gave me confidence. He tells me 'Hey you’ve been there, you've done it.' That gives me confidence. It's a matter of trust and belief. When you're in this game and you are 36 years old and you've been hurt and injured, I don't think people always have your back. I didn't know if you noticed, but I wasn't the guy doing all the media and interviews before the race. I was trying to play it low key. I didn't want to share my story about what I went though because I didn't want to talk about it. Now I can share the depth of what I was suffering a few months ago.
ST: What did you think about Manny Huerta's making the team?
Hunter: Manny had a breakthrough year last year. He made this team. The fact that he and his family came from Cuba is a great story. He was a dark horse for sure. I am glad it got settled on the race course. When it gets to committees it gets very sketchy. Triathlon Australia will have a hard time picking their team. I say let the athletes decide.