Could This Be Love?

Triathlon, the arcane sport of masochists, is poised to hit it big, with a high-profile Olympic debut and two camera-ready hardbodies in a duel for glory. Will America fall for the seduction?

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
A half-dozen tourists huddle behind the plate-glass window overlooking the Olympic Training Center pool, hoping to catch a glimpse of Amy Van Dyken or some other swimming superstar. But today all they get are Radkewich, Kemper, and Dapice. Guys they've never heard of in a sport they've barely heard of. The one where they run and bike and swim forever. Masochistic freaks. But you never can tell. Come September, maybe one of them will win a gold medal and we'll be telling everybody how we saw him back in February. Hunter Kemper, that's the guy we saw swimming that day!

The three men stroke down the long lanes, closely watched by Kevin McKenna, a coach for the U.S. Olympic swim team on loan to USA Triathlon. He's been hired to make the top American triathletes more efficient swimmers. It's a matter of mechanics, he explains. Arm-tilt angles. Triathletes have to lift their arms high through the chop of open water.

The men finish a set of laps and McKenna calls them out of the pool to watch him demonstrate a stroke. Sleek and body-shaved, the triathletes rise glistening from the water. Radkewich and Dapice are compactly muscled, both around five-foot-nine and 150 pounds, with the bristling physiques of college wrestlers. Kemper, by contrast, stands six-three and weighs 160; his long limbs twitch with rawboned power.

Somatotype isn't all that separates the 24-year-old Kemper from his fellow triathletes. His outstanding '99 season established him, just one year after turning pro, as the next great hope in American triathlon. He outsprinted veteran Australian star Greg Welch to win a major race in Oceanside, California, repeating the feat he'd performed on the same course at the end of the' 98 season, when he outkicked Radkewich for the U.S. national championship. Kemper is the alpha guy both in substance—he is among the strongest runners in the sport—and in style. A self-described mama's boy, he combines a puppyish playfulness with an obsessive work ethic and a hardheaded understanding of the business of triathlon. Before his rookie pro season, he negotiated an exclusive contract with RLX Polo Sport that made him the best-paid and best-known U.S. male Olympic-distance triathlete. (Tim De Boom is the Polo poster boy for Ironman-length events.) Though he's the sport's leading male American hope for a medal in Sydney in just his third season, Kemper won't approach his peak until the 2004 Games, when many predict he'll be a dominant international performer.

Kemper's rise has put a unique strain on his relationship with Radkewich, from whom he snatched not only the national championship but the U. S. Olympic Committee Triathlete of the Year title. It adds a further twist to their respective tales, which are uncannily similar. Both come from athletic, upper-middle-class families in the Orlando, Florida, area. Both thrived as competitive swimmers before turning to triathlon. In 1985, at age 14, Radkewich beat Lance Armstong to claim the IronKids National Championship. Kemper won in 1986 and the four years following.

With their sons involved in the same sport and belonging to the same swim club, the Kemper and Radkewich families grew close. The parents took turns driving to practices and meets; Kemper even had a brief grade-school romance with Radkewich's little sister. "Nick and Hunter always had a camaraderie," says Hunter's mother, Gretchen Kemper, "but their difference in age kept them from really being friends. We might be closer to Nick than Hunter is."

In college, Radkewich and Kemper put triathlon on hold. Radkewich attended Notre Dame and Kemper went to Wake Forest, both NCAA Division I schools with first-rate cross-country and track programs. Summers, they concentrated on triathlon, and both won amateur national championships. As soon as they graduated (with business degrees), both turned pro.

Now they live in the same town and compete for the same difficult prize. Publicly, they staunchly downplay any rivalry, declaring themselves each other's number-one fans. Privately, they defuse potential conflict by keeping their emotional and physical distance. They work with different personal coaches, have different training partners, and follow different training schedules. They don't socialize together. Kemper spends time with players on the women's Olympic volleyball team; Radkewich likes to hang with the OTC swimmers.

But now, with the days dwindling until the trials and the OTC practicing economy of scale by having all the top triathletes work together with specialists such as McKenna, distance is harder to achieve. Last week Kemper and Radkewich were on location together in Australia, this afternoon they're swimming in the same pool, and tomorrow they'll be chugging through the same cycling workout. In such close quarters, it's impossible for Radkewich to ignore his teammate's presence or to forget that just a few short years ago he, not Kemper, was considered the next great U.S. triathlon hope. He was the one with the glow. "With all the excitement around Hunter's emergence, people tend to underestimate Nick," says six-time Hawaii Ironman winner Dave Scott. "I think Nick's almost as good a runner as Hunter, and a stronger swimmer. In Olympic-distance races, swimming becomes incredibly important."

Shoulders hunched, chilled skin prickling, Radkewich and his teammates heed McKenna's tutorial to varying degrees. Dapice and Kemper, still relatively new in the sport, pay dutiful attention; Radkewich, the hardened veteran, listens more skeptically. For him, McKenna's well-meaning rap forms a small indignity. One more hoop to jump through. Why hire a "swim specialist" who doesn't know squat about triathlon? Why not give the dough they're paying this joker to a struggling triathlete? Radkewich has his own coach, Michelle Blessing, who knows the sport cold; why not pay her?

Radkewich sulks circumspectly, hanging at the back of the group. He's got to stay with the program if he wants to keep eating and swimming and lifting for free; if he wants to keep drawing his monthly better-than-nothing USA Triathlon stipend of $600, which will vanish completely if he screws up and fails to make the Olympic team.

McKenna finishes his spiel and the guys knife back into the water. As they settle into their work I'm joined by Steve Locke, executive director of USA Triathlon, who's unabashedly pleased to have me spend so much time with his star athletes. Thus far, most of the media attention has swirled around American women such as former Olympic swimmer Barb Lindquist, triathlon's strongest medal contender, and Karen Smyers, who's been training for the Olympics while fighting a well-publicized battle with thyroid cancer.

"The major corporate sponsors are getting interested in our sport," Locke says proudly. "Look at Visa. Most important, we're starting to draw the talented young athletes." He nods toward the pool. "Guys like Hunter." Locke smiles contentedly, then catches himself, adding, "And Nick, of course."

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

What You Missed

Our most important headlines, sent to you every weekday.

Thank you!