Olympics 2012: Hunter Kemper, 36, Makes His Fourth Return to Games After Debilitating Injury

"He's one in a million," his coach said.

July 26, 2012— -- Hunter Kemper's early introduction to triathlons may have been on a whim, but his drive and dedication to the sport have kept him coming back, even after a debilitating injury nearly kept him out of the London 2012 Games.

Kemper, 36, who grew up in Longwood, Fla., was 10 when he participated in his first triathlon. While he had been swimming, he hadn't considered pursuing triathlons until he beat out three other competitors in a 10-and-under event in Clermont, Fla. that he raced in for fun.

His dad, Tom Kemper, said he's been hooked ever since.

"He said he wanted to start [doing triathlons], but I didn't want him to," Tom Kemper said. "I said, 'You have to be kidding me! There's no future in triathlons -- that's a recreational sport:"

But Kemper pushed on. His wife, Val Kemper, a former member of the U.S. national volleyball team, said her husband participated in the Iron Kids National Championships each year up until college.

"Because he won, I think it kind of fueled his fire and [he] continued to do it," Val Kemper said. "He realized he was good at it."

While Kemper ran track and cross country in college at attending Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., each summer he'd sign up to compete in triathlons. Val Kemper said none of his friends at school even knew about his passion for the sport.

Triathlons are a test of athletic endurance. The event consists of a 1500 meter swim, followed by a 25-mile bike race, and concludes with a 10K run.

At his graduation from college in 1998, Kemper surprised his father when he told him he wanted to move to Colorado Springs, Colo. so he could begin training at the U.S. Olympic Complex to become a professional triathlete. Earlier that year, the International Olympic Committee announced the triathlon was going to be introduced for the first time at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Austrialia.

"He had good grades, and graduated with honors. I thought he'd go into the business world," Tom Kemper said. "I said, 'Are you kidding me? Does this mean you're still on my payroll?'"

Kemper's qualifying times weren't good enough to allow him to live at the training center, Tom Kemper said, so he moved close by so he could still train there. By the end of the summer of 1998, Kemper had won the national championships in Carlsbad, Calif., and turned professional, allowing him to move into housing within the facility.

In 2000, Kemper qualified to compete in the triathalon event at the Sydney Olympics. He also competed in the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece, and the 2008 Games in Beijing, China.

But Kemper's commitment to Olympic glory was not without pitfalls.

During an October 2011 race in Myrtle Beach S.C., Kemper, 36, shattered his elbow when a competitor who had been lapped in the swimming portion of the race ran into the transitional area where Kemper was pedaling through on his bike, neck and neck with another competitor.

Val Kemper, who was at the race, said he had just come down a hill, and was likely going 35 miles an hour.

"He was hit by a runner who shouldn't have been on the course," Tom Kemper said. "Because of the spectators, no one could see him."

Typically, if an athlete is about to be lapped during a triathlon, they are removed from the course, said Val Kemper. But no one stopped the runner when he was coming out of the swimming event, she said.

The incident was caught on video by someone in the crowd and was uploaded to YouTube. The sudden collision caused Kemper to lose control of his bicycle, skid on the track, and land on his left elbow.

Kemper had endured injuries in the past, including sports hernias, hip fractures, and a broken collarbone, his wife said, but nothing had been as bad as this.

Val Kemper said that doctors at a nearby hospital in Myrtle Beach told him to fly home to have his elbow checked out; they did not notice Kemper's open fracture. It wasn't until he saw his orthopedic surgeon in Denver, that anyone realized just how serious his fall had been.

"He had to go into emergency surgery [in Denver] just to get the wound washed out to prevent any kind of infection because it had been exposed for more than 24 hours at that time," Val Kemper said. "That was the start of a whole series of operations."

Kemper had to wait a week until his wound was clean for doctors to operate. Tom Kemper said his son had 13 screws and a plate put in to repair it, requiring him to go into physical therapy to work up his range of motion.

But at Christmastime, Kemper faced another setback. He contracted a staph infection, and underwent three surgeries in three consecutive days just to get his elbow flushed out, his wife said.

The Myrtle Beach race was more of a practice run less than a week before the October 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. But Kemper's injury kept him out of training until February. After breaking his elbow, Kemper did not know if he would be able to qualify for the 2012 Games, his wife said.

"I think it was completely discouraging," Val Kemper said. "He didn't know if he was going to be able to get back."

Cliff English, Kemper's coach, said Kemper's injury was a major setback, but within four months, he had been given the go-ahead to resume training.

"He's very strong mentally, he's very positive, he has strong faith, and a great family. All of those things contribute to help you come back," English said. "I would say very few people would be able to come back so quickly."

Kemper had just a short amount of time to train before his last opportunity to qualify for the Olympics, at the ITU World Triathlon in San Diego, Calif. in May, English said.

"When it came to San Diego, there was no luxury of practice races," English said. "And [qualifying] was definitely by no means guaranteed."

Only two athletes at the San Diego race could qualify to represent the U.S. at the Olympics. Kemper needed to be the top U.S. triathlete in the race or finish in the top nine in order to travel to London.

But English said at the San Diego race, "you could tell [Kemper] had an aura of confidence coming off of him."

Kemper ultimately finished fifth, and secured his spot on Team USA in the London Games.

"It was definitely a challenging time, but Hunter -- he's always amazed me," Val Kemper said.

Kemper is only one of three athletes in the world making a fourth appearance at the Olympics, his wife said.

On Kemper's Facebook, he said his top goal was winning an Olympic medal. His coach said this year Kemper is looking to bring one home from the London Games.

"That thing you gotta look for is that he lives for that one day in four years," English said.

Kemper will be 40 in 2016, but both his family and his coach say that they anticipate him making an appearance at the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"He's one of the most talented athletes I've ever worked with," English said. "He's one in a million."