Hunter Kemper poses for a portrait during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit on May 14, 2012 in Dallas, Texas.
When it comes to the Olympics, triathlete Hunter Kemper is pretty much an expert. After all, he has competed at four of them — back to back, making him the only four-time U.S. triathlete. Not to mention the top U.S. male finisher at all four Olympics from 2000-2012.
So picking a favorite Games would be like picking a favorite out of his five kids. But he admitted that the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 would always hold a special place in his heart — because they were the Games where triathlon made its debut.
“Triathlon is a big deal in Australia because they are really good at it,” he recalled. “And you could just feel how excited they were to be putting on the Games. They had that Australian laid-back quality to them where everyone was so welcoming and the city had lots of outdoor venues, and big viewing parties. It was just a fun environment to be in.”
It was also relaxed when it came to security, as the tragedies of September 11 had yet to happen. “Having now gone through 9/11, Sydney brings you back to a time when things didn’t seem as regimented as it does now,” Kemper said.
One thing the country did take seriously was the fact that their waters have always been known to be the home to great white sharks.
Being a favorite in a sport new to the Games — tae kwon do, trampoline, and synchronized diving were also added to the Olympic sports program in 2000 — Kemper (who was 24 at the time) was presented with a lot of opportunities. Going on the Today show was one of them.
“I remember triathlon was getting all this publicity because we were a new event,” he recalled. “I was thinking as we went on they were going to ask us nutrition questions, or about how training was going. The first question was, ‘Hey, what do you think about the sharks in the harbor?’ I was like, ‘Are you serious? Are we live right now? Sharks in the harbor?’” he laughed, now.
“Sure enough, 90 minutes before our race, I see these guys in wetsuits with guns around the Sydney Harbour. When I asked what the deal was they were like, ‘Oh, those are sonar guns. The sharks don’t like the sound, so the divers are going to patrol the perimeter.’”
The idea of it certainly helped motivate Kemper to have what he deemed “a solid swim,” and after the first leg of the race he placed in the upper third of the pack. But when it came time for the run, “I didn’t race as well as I would have hoped,” he said. Overall he finished seventeenth, while the top Australian male took sixth (and a silver on the women’s side).
He admitted that he was disappointed, but he was “also excited to be at the Games representing my country.” The upside was that he got the next two weeks off to watch his fellow Team USA athletes compete.
The 2000 Olympics also saw swimming phenom Michael Phelps competing at his first Games at the age of 15 — the youngest male to make a U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years. Kemper said he didn’t get to watch the fresh-faced Phelps (complete with a row of braces on his bottom teeth) compete. It would be the only Games where the most decorated Olympian of all time would not earn a medal. (He placed fifth in the 200-meter butterfly.) It was also where NBC Olympics analyst and three-time gold medal swimmer Rowdy Gaines made the prediction about the athlete who finished his career with a record 28 medals, “Boy, this guy’s going to be great one day.”
Looking back, the other big moment that Kemper missed seeing live was the much-talked-about Opening Ceremony, where Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman lit the torch. The moment marked a hundred years of women’s participation in the Olympic Games, as well as a tribute to the indigenous heritage of Freeman — the 1996 Olympic silver medal sprinter in the 400m who then went on to win gold a week later in Sydney.
“Triathlon was the featured event of those Games, with the women’s races on Saturday and the men the following day. That was only bad because we couldn’t walk at Opening Ceremony,” Kemper mused. “Not a great idea to walk around and stand on your feet for 10 hours, days before your big event, right?”
Kemper has been back to Australia since the end of those Games, but hopes to return one day with his kids so he can show them what he called “the coolest venue I have ever raced in.”
“The race itself was my favorite memory of those Games, and it wouldn’t be hard to showcase where it took place. We can kind of be tourists and just walk along the boulevard in front of the Opera House, where the transition area was; then head towards the Sydney Harbor. My kids have seen the videos. They’ve seen their dad racing in his Lycra,” he said with a laugh.
“It would be cool to go back and take them. But I’ve got five kids, so I’m still trying to figure out the funding mechanism. Maybe I’ll use some airline miles? Just empty them all out in one shot,” he half joked.