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

Hunter Kemper spins on his stationary bike a few feet away, listening intently. For his whole life, he has stood just a little apart from Radkewich, watching and learning. In college, he wondered why Radkewich and other pro triathletes were so inconsistent, finishing in the top three one race and 58th the next. Much of the reason, he determined, was financial uncertainty, the stress of maintaining half a dozen corporate sponsorships that together barely paid a subsistence wage.

So in the spring of 1998, his senior year in college, Kemper shrewdly assembled a business plan. He prepared a résumé and a cover letter and sent them off via overnight delivery to 30 potential corporate sponsors. Not the standard shoe and bike and energy-bar companies, but the mighty powerhouses in the habit of doing nothing halfway—Nike, Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger. Polo Sport responded.

Kemper put on a suit and traveled to New York. The Polo marketing executives were impressed by his boy-next-door manner, his nerdy/sexy/preppy good looks, and his self-confidence. Kemper's athletic talent was genuine, moreover, as was his sense of timing: Triathlon would be featured prominently during the 2000 Olympics, not long after Polo rolled out its new line of RLX performance sportswear. The executives recognized a perfect fit and signed Kemper to an exclusive sponsorship deal. (He declines to say what it's worth.)

Kemper displays only the Polo logo during a race. No tacky, tricked-out plastering of logos across his bike, wetsuit, and singlet. He needn't fuss with the competing, time-consuming demands of multiple sponsors. Most important, Polo pays him a stable salary that, while hardly up to major-sport standards, matches what a bright, aggressive, recent college grad might earn in the business world. Even before he dove into the water for his first professional triathlon two years ago, Kemper had achieved a level of comfort and security that Radkewich had never approached during five difficult years in the sport. It took Kemper just a few months to make good on Polo's investment. After a slow start, he capped the 1998 season by winning the national championships and being named USA Triathlon's Rookie of the Year. In May 1999, Kemper won a major race in Arizona and the next week locked horns with Greg Welch at the Oceanside triathlon.

"We came out of the bike nose to nose and set out running on a loop course," Kemper recalls. "I knew I was capable of racing well, but facing Welch like that, just the two of us, was more than I bargained for. On the last loop we were stride to stride, hammering, and I was able to outkick him in the end. It was like..." Kemper straightens from his handlebars and jabs his fist into the dank, fetid air of the apartment. "It was indescribable, the greatest feeling in the world." He shakes his head. "That was an amazing day."

The room goes quiet, the men again settling into the whir of their searing simulated climb through the mountains.

"At the end of last season, Polo called me up and said they wanted to pay me more money and extend my contract to run past the Olympics," Kemper goes on, pitching his voice below the video's sound track. For a moment he focuses on his cycling. Then, very softly, he adds, "That kind of support is crucial. That made me feel good."

Radkewich, meanwhile, seems to have lost himself in Slap Shot, which is approaching its climax. He pedals hard, eyes riveted on the screen, absorbed in the story of a fictional hockey team's ten-hour bus rides through the boonies; of three teammates forced to share a shabby hotel room; of a season's accrued losses graced by sporadic flashes of mastery. He doesn't need to spell out the similarities between the characters' lives and his own. Nor does he have to voice the central fact of his lifelong relationship with Hunter Kemper.

They are not quite friends, and as long as they pursue the same peculiar, unforgiving profession, they probably never will be. They differ in age, temperament, and fortune. They share boyhood memories, a passionate but repressed rivalry, and for the next half-hour, this sweat-rank living room. Like a lot of brothers, Radkewich and Kemper are stuck with each other.  

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

What You Missed

Our most important headlines, sent to you every weekday.

Thank you!