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What Keeps Hunter Kemper Tri-ing?

By Peggy Shinn | July 31, 2015, 1:09 a.m. (ET)

Hunter Kemper competes in the men's triathlon at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games on July 12, 2015 in Toronto.

Hunter Kemper visits the USA House at the Royal College of Art on Aug. 4, 2012 in London.

Hunter Kemper is aiming to make his fifth Olympic team. His first opportunity is this weekend’s 2015 Rio de Janeiro ITU World Olympic Qualification Event, where up to two American men can qualify, provided they finish in the top eight.

If Kemper does qualify, the 39-year-old father of four will become the only triathlete in the world to compete in all five Olympic triathlons. To date, he is one of only two to make it to four Olympic Games.

The sport has changed since Kemper first toed the start line at triathlon’s Olympic debut in Sydney in 2000. These days, the races are faster and the fields far deeper, with a number of men capable of winning.

In the seven ITU World Triathlon Series races to date this year, five different men have won.

Times are faster too, especially in the run.

“Guys are running sub 30 minutes off the bike in a 10-kilometer race,” explained Kemper. “Before, that was not happening. We were probably running 31 minutes-and-change off the bike.”

But Kemper, who recently finished eighth in the Pan American Games triathlon in Toronto, has consistently finished near the top throughout his career, especially at important races. At an Olympic qualifier for the 2012 Games, he placed fifth and was the top American.

He’s also been the top American finisher at all four Olympic triathlons to date.

“I feel like I’ve ridden that wave so to speak, that’s what I’ve been good at, almost riding the crest of that wave as the sport has picked up and grown and expanded,” he said. “I’ve grown with it, and I’ve gotten faster with it too.”

He admitted that it’s challenging to keep up — not just with the changing sport but with younger competition.

“When I go to the athletes briefing, I feel like my generation is no longer there,” he said, somewhat wistfully. “There aren’t many birth dates in the 1970s, I can tell you that much.”

Kemper’s birth year is 1976. By comparison, defending Olympic gold medalist Alistair Brownlee was born in 1988 and was only 10 years old when Kemper entered his first pro triathlon.

But Kemper is proud of what he’s done throughout his career. Since turning pro immediately after graduating from Wake Forest University in 1998, he has won seven national titles and been ranked No. 1 in the world, among other accomplishments.

He’s also a spokesperson for the Pinky Swear Foundation, which aims to help the families of kids recently diagnosed with cancer meet their immediate financial needs, such as mortgage payments and other household bills. Partnered with Hy-Vee, the Midwestern grocery chain, Pinky Swear is sponsoring non-competitive kids triathlons to raise money for the cause. In two events last year, 1,600 kids raised over $600,000.

“I love that they’re using the platform of triathlon to get kids active,” said Kemper. “These events are non-timed, it’s all about finishing. But really it’s about helping kids who need a helping hand, who are going through a hard time.”

Kemper hopes to continue working with Pinky Swear after he retires. But at the moment, he is not thinking beyond the Olympic Games.

Looking back over his Olympic career, he’s most proud of finishing seventh at the Beijing Games in 2008. Not only was it his highest finish in an Olympic triathlon, but he competed with a sports hernia.

“It limited me so much,” he said. “I did all I could to finish seventh. If I didn’t have that sports hernia, I feel like I could have been quite a bit better.”

His fondest memory is of triathlon’s Olympic debut in Sydney, where many locals follow triathlon closely.

“To be a featured sport, to swim in the harbor with sharks, to go on the TODAY show with Matt Lauer, it was a lot of excitement and buildup around those Games,” remembered Kemper, who finished 17th at the Sydney Games.

He also fondly remembers competing in London in front of his whole family — including his wife Val (whom he calls his sounding board, sports psychologist, masseuse and his rock), his parents and his oldest son, who was 5 at the time.

So with a career full of memories and four young kids at home — three boys and a 20-month-old baby girl — what keeps Kemper going?

His kids, for one. He wants them to remember Daddy as an athlete competing at his sport’s highest level.

“For them to see Daddy out there running around in his race outfit versus some old has-been hack who has stories to tell, I want them to actually have memories instead of just those pictures and stories,” he said. “Ultimately for me, that’s why I want to go to Rio.”

Kemper is also still chasing that elusive Olympic gold medal.

“I’ve tried so hard to win a medal,” he emphasized. “That’s what drives me to this day. I still want that boyhood dream of winning that gold medal. It’s still there, it’s still going.”

The first step in 2016 Olympic qualifying happens on the streets of Rio on Sunday. His whole season has centered around this event.

“I would love to be top eight in the race as well as top American,” he stated. “If that’s possible, that is the goal.”

Although he will be the oldest man in the field — and 40 years old next year, should he qualify for the Rio Games — veteran status could help Kemper.

“The biggest advantage that I have is that ability to calm myself before the event and know what my body takes and what I need before the race and not let the race itself get the most of me,” he said. “I’ll be able to rise to the occasion on the day. I feel like I’ve done that very well in the past since I’ve been able to make all those (Olympic) teams.”

“Wherever things shake out, I’ll be okay with it,” he added, “ as long as I can perform to the best of my abilities.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. 

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Hunter Kemper