If anyone is deserving of the ‘veteran’ tag in sport, Hunter Kemper is somewhere near the front of the queue, as the passionate 39-year-old American triathlete has been at the front throughout most of his 18-year career in the sport.
Already a four-time Olympian, Kemper is still on the ITU Circuit with an eye towards Rio, which would be an incredible fifth appearance on the sport’s biggest stage. If he completes the feat, he will be the only triathlete to have competed in every Olympics since triathlon was included on the programme in 2000.
What is it then that motivates a man who has been around as the sport has evolved from a start-up to a bona fide professional sport?
“After London, I took a long hard look at triathlon and where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do. Did I want to go longer or continue on with the ITU or do some non-drafting races in the USA? For me though it came down to the passion I have for the Olympic Games, I love the idea that every four years you see who can perform on the day. It is the biggest event and pinnacle in our sport and I love what that has to offer,” Kemper said.
Kemper has been relatively quiet so far in 2015 but is working to a plan, one that he hopes has him on the USA team for Rio. Yet, despite his commitment to punching a fifth ticket to the Olympics, training for the better part of two decades can’t help but ware on an athlete.
“Rio is the big motivator but for a while it wasn’t, for a while I was a lost soul after London trying to find my way. A lot of my guys have moved on, Docherty, Khalefeldt, Don, Whitfield. When you go through the birthdates there are not many in the 70’s and I am 1976!”
“So when the alarm has gone off in the past year, it has been a struggle. I think it is slowly becoming Rio but the motivation has been tough, I am not going to lie. It has not been where I need it to be.”
But motivation isn’t the only factor when it comes to lining up on the Copacabana Beach next year. While Kemper’s experience is simply unparalleled, the years of training have also taken a toll on his body.
“I don’t get up feeling like I used to, I can tell you that. My calf hurts, my body aches just like we all do as we get older. Father Time is catching up to me but I am still out there, trying to do something that has never been done before, so we will see.”
Add in that Kemper is himself a father of a brood large enough to field its own relay team, and the trip to Brazil gets even more complicated.
“My life is so different to almost anyone else on the circuit, I have four kids at home and five chickens, I live a very different life. Recovery is hard to come by. I have a very supportive wife who stays at home and looks after the kids and allows me to do what I do, without that support I wouldn’t be able to do what I do and wouldn’t be where I am today.
“While it is hard, it works for me, it gives me balance. I can’t do triathlon all the time anymore, I need the balance, and the life I have creates that balance in my heart and mind to where I can go out there and perform.”
Although the American women appear to be nearly unstoppable this season, their men’s team hasn’t fared quite as well. In fact, Kemper is the only American man that has been ranked first in the world, which he accomplished in 2005-2006.
“It is fair to say, I feel like I want to be a hope to the other American men, to be there in a mentor role of sorts but that is fair comment, if the American men were going the same as the women right now, the writing might be on the wall for me in the sense that I maybe can’t get it done. Right now we don’t have athletes at the top of the rankings, it would be very different for me if that weren’t the case, if we had our version of the Brownlee brothers or some other guys coming through. Don’t get me wrong, we have some talented athletes and kids coming through, they are just not quite there yet.”
But that’s something Kemper would like to see change.
“I would love to do some coaching with these young athletes and love to be involved with the youth in our sport. I don’t see myself being a coach of age group or Ironman athletes - that is not where my passion is. I would love to take these juniors and under 23’s and these young kids coming up and guiding them along the way and helping them understand what it takes to be number one in the world.”
While Kemper is focused through 2016, he knows his years racing are limited. However, it’s a move he’s well prepared for.
“I have considered what is next, I think it is okay to go there. I want to be involved in triathlon in some way, I am doing a lot of work for a foundation I am spokesperson for, the Pinky Swear foundation (www.pinkyswear.org). We do triathlons in the USA with kids who race for other kids with cancer and raise money for them and their families. It is non-timed, non-competitive youth events - that is where my passion is.”
If anyone is well-placed to comment on the sport and where it currently sits, it is Kemper. He has witnessed firsthand the many twists and turns the sport has taken, and has been a part of its amazing evolution.
“The sport is changing, it is getting so deep and so fast, it is cool to see. The ITU has done a great job of that in bringing the sport to the people in their living rooms, the media and marketing behind it, I think it is the best series in the world. The live timing on the day, so many other series can learn from that and take lessons in what the ITU is doing to bring the sport to the people whether it is the audience watching on TV or listening online, the ITU has done a great job and others need to look at it as the gold standard.”
And that is a compliment indeed from a man who might well be awarded the ‘Gold Standard’ for his contribution to the sport, a contribution that shows no signs of waning just yet.