At 36 years old, American Hunter Kemper finished 14th in the London Olympic Games last month in his fourth Olympic Games. In all four Olympic triathlons, Kemper has placed as the top American man, and this year he beat the odds to make the team. Last October he sustained a crash in a freak accident that caused him to break his elbow, which required surgery, and later led to a staph infection. By the time the Olympic trials rolled around in May, he barely made it onto the start list because he hadn’t raced since his accident, but he ran his way to a fifth-place finish, securing his spot on his fourth Olympic team. Since London, he’s raced to a win at the Chicago Triathlon and a runner-up finish the Hy-Vee Elite Cup in Des Moines, Iowa. We caught up with Kemper after he raced the sprint-distance Club Med Triathlon to find out what he learned in London, how he’ll spend the rest of his season, whether he’s going for Rio 2016 and if we’ll see him in any 70.3s soon.
Triathlete.com: What’d you think of the Club Med race?
Kemper: I thought it was very supportive and welcoming. I think it’s a great race for athletes to get involved in the sport and a great race to showcase their resort, and I think it’s a unique race—I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a race where you start and finish in the same maybe 25 yards from one another—all in that one location—as well as a race where you can walk outside your door, walk your bike over [to transition]. I think the easiest way to put it would be convenient, simple. … They have a good venue to put a race on. And I did the sprint race because I just wanted to get my feet wet almost, and I’m racing [this] weekend in L.A. and the following weekend in Dallas for the Toyota series.
Triathlete.com: So you have L.A., then the U.S. Open, and then is that the end of your season?
Kemper: Yep, exactly, after those two. I’m trying to go for the overall series there.
Triathlete.com: How do you like the Life Time Fitness series?
Kemper: I really enjoy it. Toyota’s a sponsor of mine. I’m a Toyota athlete, along with Andy Potts and Sarah Haskins. So we commit to at least four or five of the events—we don’t have to race at them all, but we have to be in attendance, be at the expos, and just show up at appearances. The past few years, I haven’t really committed to series because of the Olympic Games and the chase of the Olympics, and this year I didn’t think I would be either—I just happened to squeeze in the race at Austin after the trials, won that, so I was like, ‘OK, well I still probably won’t do the series.’ And then I won Minneapolis, and I thought, ‘Maybe I should consider it.’ And then I went to Chicago—I thought I should at least try to do the last three—and I went to Chicago and won that, so I was like, ‘Man, now I got to stay in it.’ And I didn’t think I was going to do the series this year, like trying to win, and now I feel like I have a chance, so I’m going to continue on with the last two.
Triathlete.com: Have you had time to reflect on the Olympics? And what do you feel like you’ve taken away from London?
Kemper: Yeah, I feel like I have. I feel like my race in London—I wasn’t overly happy with the result. I wish I could have done better. I didn’t run very well. And it stinks because my running fitness was in better shape than it’s ever been in my life. So that was disappointing—I don’t know what was wrong. I kind of feel like I was stuck in third gear, as opposed to really letting loose and flowing. And if that happens, it’s going to cost you six or seven spots, and I think that’s what it did. If I were on top of my game, I would have finished probably maybe sixth or seventh as opposed to 14th. But I wasn’t going to win. I think that’s the takeaway for me—if Alistair and Javier and Jonathan were at their best, and I’m at my best, I wasn’t going to win. I’m OK with saying that. I think you have to be naïve to think that’s not the case for any other athletes. So you just hope they’re off their A-game a little bit, or they’re not quite there or the pressure gets to them a little bit, and that you’re there to potentially pounce and take advantage of that. But that wasn’t the case, so it turned out the way it should turn out. It should have gone 1, 2, 3, the way that it did. I think they’re the best three athletes in the world, and I think there’s a gap between them and the rest of the group. I think you see that in a couple of sports—you see that in tennis, men’s tennis, at least. You have the Roger Federers and the Rafael Nadals and the [Novak] Djokovics, and Andy Murray is in there as well, but then there’s a gap after those top four. So I think my takeaway is that I’m 36, I’m not going to be getting a whole lot faster in my 10K run split. And that’s where the sport’s going—[Alistair] ran 29:07 and walked across the line and there were U-turns on the course. He probably could have run maybe 28 high. The sport is changing—and they’re in their prime, so they’re going to get better too. The sport’s going to move along. I think I’d love to stay in the Olympic Games, I want to keep on going. I want to go to Rio—I didn’t think initially I would say that, but I would love to see myself on that journey of making it to a fifth Games and what that would look like as a triathlete. I think four has only been done by myself and [Simon] for the men, and then Anja Dittmer in women. … I think my story would be how cool would it be to make it to a fifth and show the longevity over the course of an entire career, that I could go that along and be the best American in the sport for so long.
I’ll stay in the ITU the next couple years and stay in the rankings and not be so far gone that it’s hard for me to get back, like stay connected. Like do some World Cups and maybe some Continental Cups maybe in the U.S. … My main focus the next couple years will be the Life Time Fitness Toyota Cup series, and St. Anthony’s, and trying to win Hy-Vee. I’ve tried to win it the last two years. I’ll do Escape from Alcatraz, I’ll do fun races like that, I might do the Beijing Triathlon—stuff like that. I’ll look at a schedule, and I think it’s going to be kind of exciting to do races where you can leave on a Friday, do the race, come back on Sunday, whereas before I’d have to go on a long trip, I’m gone for two weeks, it’s just the travel, the jetlag. … And then when I get to 2014 and I look at it, I’ll think, ‘All right.’ I don’t really see anyone coming up, except Lukas Verzbicas, that’s really shown themselves to have the chops to knock me off or do that. Jarrod Shoemaker is talented, and he’s only going to get better, and Matt Chrabot, only one direction he’ll go. Those two guys missed out. I think Manny will continue to get better. But they’re not athletes I think I can’t potentially beat three or four years from now. If we had a bunch of Alistair Brownlees and Lukas Verzbicases and Jonathan Brownlees coming up, then they would totally force me out. And I would try to do it, but it would really be a long shot, right? But right now it’s really not there on the American scene still. So until somebody comes and knocks you off your pedestal and your position, then why not keep trying to obtain that dream of the Olympic Games. And if I can’t win a medal, maybe my role is more of a domestique role. Maybe it’s helping someone like a Lukas get there. Who knows? But I see myself more non-drafting the next few years and then going back to the Olympics after that.
Triathlete.com: So it’s been about a year since your accident—how are you feeling both mentally and physically?
Kemper: I feel good mentally from it. I went through a lot, and it was very difficult on me. And mentally I was in a bad place in January and February. But I think it taught me a lot. It taught me a lot about life, it taught me a lot about training, and I think that’s how people grow—when they go through adversity, any adversity in life. You’re going to grow and hopefully use it down the road as a positive and something that you learn from and can challenge yourself to move forward. And I think I’ve done that, but through that valley, that’s why I felt like my high was so good in San Diego and so emotional for me to qualify because of what I went through.
Triathlete.com: Have you reached out to Lukas at all since his accident?
Kemper: I’ve talked with him in the past, but like about his accident about where he’s coming from and what he’s going through, I haven’t. But he seems to be in really good spirits. It seems like things are really going well and improving really fast. From where he’s come from to where he is now—I think the therapy and the improvement have been exponentially quick. It’s just been amazing. At this pace, I’m sure the last little bit will be tough to get, but he’ll be back racing next year. … He’s a talented kid. He’s someone that the U.S. should really be proud of and be excited that he’s in our sport—he didn’t have to choose triathlon, and he did. But I think you’ve got to harness it and not try to over-hype it, over-hype him. You don’t want the pressure to be so much that he has to be our guy, he has to do this, he has to win medals. You start doing that and maybe it can be overbearing. Let him grow, he’s young. He’s going to have a long career in the sport if he wants to. … His swimming needs to improve, and his bike as well, but I’d love to see when he eventually gets to the point where he’ll be in the group, at the finish of the bike, come off with the main group, and run against Alistair. I think he’s got the running chops to do it, when you run an 8:29 2-mile, and you’re the best athlete ever to come out of high school. That’s where our sport’s gone: swimming and running. You’ve got to swim [well]. Half the field in our race [in the Olympics] were out of it right from the get-go. There were only 22 athletes in the lead pack and the last 33, so two-fifths were in it, and three-fifths were out before it even started really.
Triathlete.com: So can you talk about the importance of your family and how you balance that with being a professional?
Family’s big to me, I love my children, I’d love to have more children. … I love kind of being the dad on the circuit. I think it’s kind of cool. There are a few of us—I know Andy Potts, and Matt Reed. There are a few Americans who have the kids, but not many on the ITU circuit. That’s definitely more of a simplistic, traveling lifestyle, based in Europe for six months—not really conducive to having families. Whereas some of the U.S. guys do, plus Simon Whitfield, Bevan Docherty. I feel like it’s kind of fun to see the older guys with kids. And I really embraced it, and I think I know how to race really well balancing them. I don’t bring them to all the races because it’s hard to travel with all of them. In regards to balancing it, I bring them to a few races a year: Des Moines. When I bring them to Des Moines, I make sure my in-laws are there too, to help out. … I feel like triathlon doesn’t define who I am as a person—I’m so much more than the sport of triathlon. I feel like it’s what I do, it’s what I love, but I’m not the guy that’s in all the tri stuff, I’m not super techy. I just love to go and race and compete and do my thing. And that’s why I love the Olympic distance. That’s where my passion is. I see myself doing some 70.3s next year or maybe the next couple years, like do one or two. But not be consistent with it—you won’t see me doing five or six. If from that dabbling comes success, then ‘Oh, maybe I should go and do a couple more of these.’ But it’ll stop there. Ironman has never been a dream of mine, it’s never been something on my radar. And I just don’t like to train that much, to be honest with you. I don’t like to ride my bike. I might train the same number of hours as the Ironman guys, but they’re just a different style of training—I’m in the water a lot more or I’m doing a lot more speed-oriented training. I don’t like to go out and ride my bike for five hours.