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?

John Brant

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Nick Radkewich runs the Garden of the Gods in the shadow of Pikes Peak on a shimmering jewel of a Rocky Mountain morning, nine months before the first Olympic triathlon in Australia.

The Garden of the Gods: serpentine canyons of carmine sandstone, daggering against a cobalt-blue sky. Once a refuge for Utes and Apaches, later a beacon to prairie-schooner pilgrims, now a Colorado Springs city park and convenient workout site for athletes from the town’s U.S. Olympic Training Center. The OTC provides weight-room and dining-hall sustenance to starving-artist athletes such as Radkewich, practitioners of the off-brand Olympic sports who orbit out of obscurity and into the network TV sunshine once every four years.

Triathlon in particular will be soaking up the limelight at this year’s Games. Thanks in large part to the sport’s enormous popularity in Australia, the men’s and women’s races will kick off the first two nights of NBC’s Olympic coverage. The course, consisting of a 1.5-kilometer open-water swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride, and a 10-kilometer run (a mere fraction of the epic distance covered in traditional Ironman-length events), winds through Sydney Harbor and past the landmark Opera House. It’s the stuff of telegenic dreams, and an auspicious image boost for a sport that in the United States has largely been dismissed as the monotonous pastime of obsessive-compulsive geeks.

“One of the top ten memories of the Games will be the wide shot of triathletes diving into the water to begin the swim,” promises Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports.

Should they hold true to form and ace the Olympic Trials in Dallas on May 27, two of those triathletes will be Radkewich and his boyhood companion from central Florida, Hunter Kemper, winner of the 1998 and 1999 Triathlon National Championships and a model for the RLX line of Ralph Lauren Polo Sport. Given the two men’s intertwined lives and careers, USA Triathlon, the sport’s national governing body, sells the pair to the media as a boxed set, the lead roles in a kind of endurance-sport buddy-movie script.

This morning, hammering steep half-mile hill repetitions at 6,200 feet, Radkewich takes center stage: a hard-bodied young American running under sandstone spires in pursuit of Olympic gold and the greater glory of God, country, and primary sponsors. He and his training partner, Josh Dapice, readily accommodate me and my reporter’s notebook, although, to be honest, they’d rather do these repeats on an unpaved trail that didn’t shred their quads on the downhills. But magazine pages, like TV time, are hotly coveted on triathlon’s maiden Olympic voyage. And at age 29, after seven hardscrabble years as a professional triathlete, Radkewich fully understands his PR responsibilities. He parks his Jeep beneath the camera-ready peaks and gamely goes to work.

“This will be a strength-building session,” he says patiently, accustomed to explaining triathlon to uncomprehending outsiders. “Given the hilly course in Sydney, we don’t have to worry much about killer speed-training. Coming out of the bike-run transition, there’ll be a pack of 20 or 30 guys going balls-to-the-wall. You absolutely have to be a strong runner.”

Radkewich flashes a wintry grin. He’s a wiry, medium-size man, with a spiky two-week growth of beard and the hollow-eyed stare of a soldier on a long forced march. A few days earlier, he and Kemper returned from a weeklong trip to Sydney, where they taped a TV commercial for Visa that will air before and during the Games. Anticipating the pair’s earning two of the likely three spots on the men’s U.S. team, NBC has already filmed their mini-bios. Radkewich still feels slightly lagged from the Australia job. He and Kemper worked eight- and nine-hour days on the set, essentially losing a week’s training. Now comes this morning’s quad-buster.

It’s a cruel cycle, the daily grind of a triathlete. Like other aspiring Olympians around the world, Nick Radkewich spends his life either working out, recovering from a workout, or preparing to work out. He stitches approximately 250 miles of cycling, 60 miles of running, and 15 miles of swimming into 60-hour training weeks, seeking to hit the bull’s-eye rhythm that will deliver him in consummate shape to Sydney in September. For Radkewich, Olympic exposure would yield a veritable bonanza in sponsor bonuses and new and renegotiated contracts. He might finally earn a living wage. No more house-sitting. No more selling men’s suits for minimum wage plus commissions while Kemper, the kid who used to tag along behind him at swim meets and who followed the trail that Radkewich blazed in college and professional triathlons, makes big bucks modeling sportswear.

Morning creeps toward noon as Radkewich works the hill, running with light-limbed grace, just on the edge of oxygen deficiency. His seeming ease belies the hectic, edgy pulse of his closely calibrated days. In its early years, triathlon served as a stately form of aerobic meditation, a paean to the merits of going slow and long. The signature race, the Hawaii Ironman, was dominated by powerful but offhand former lifeguards such as Dave Scott and Mark Allen, who churned through the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run like Zen masters, enclosed in bubbles of unremitting effort. All that’s changed. The Ironman, the emblematic endurance event of the 1980s, has lost popularity to shorter, high-pressure races that are won not by laid-back Californians, but by Australians and Europeans. The odds-on favorite for the Sydney gold is four-time world champion Simon Lessing, who was born in South Africa but races for Great Britain.

For more than a decade, American men have languished far down in the triathlon pecking order. Not one of them has won the Olympic-distance world championship since Mark Allen did in 1989. But Radkewich, Kemper, and a few others, including Tony De Boom (a media darling whose brother, Tim, is also a pro triathlete), harbor a spark of hope. In elite, Olympic-distance races, mere seconds often separate the first- and 20th-place finishers. A race often goes to whoever’s hot—or lucky—on a given day. Radkewich, who led the American men in World Cup points last year, and Kemper, runner-up in the 1999 Pan Am Games, should be in the lead pack coming out of the water in Sydney Harbor, should hang near the front through the bike phase, and should make the transition into the 10k with plausible, if dark-horse, shots at a medal.

That is, if they don’t crash and burn in the trials. If they hit every workout bang on the nail, performing each swim, bike ride, and run—and every weight-training, stretching, and sports-psychology session—at the exact prescribed pitch of intensity.

Radkewich cranks his uphill repeat, turns, and pads downslope for his final two-minute gasper. Dapice passes, toiling uphill, following his own training sequence.

“It’s not the work I mind,” Radkewich says of his ascetic profession. “It’s the constant grind of scrambling for dough. Not that I’m in such bad shape myself. I’ve got it a lot easier than Josh, for instance.

“And hey,” he says with a grin, pointing to the passing rock spires. “I get to live in the Springs!” A few more strides and the grin fades. “The real reason I live here is that it’s cheap,” he admits. “Up in Boulder, I’d pay 650 bucks a month for my apartment. Here, I only pay $450.” With a glint of self-derision, he adds, “I can afford to go to the movies once in a while, instead of just renting videos.”

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.”

For $450 a month, Radkewich gets the top-floor flat of a formerly grand Victorian residence near the old downtown area of Colorado Springs. It’s a prototypical jock’s bachelor pad, with clothes and gear strewn about the rooms amid piles of magazines and CDs. Today, the living room vibrates to a Metallica video. Kemper and Dapice have just arrived, stationary bikes in tow, for a long session with the Computrainer, a $1,500 software system that simulates the terrain and intensity of an outdoor cycling workout. “It’s quite a gadget,” Kemper explains, wiring a heart-rate monitor and wheel sensor to Radkewich’s computer. “We don’t have to worry about traffic or flat tires. We can count on getting our heart rates up. Hit a key and we can e-mail the results directly to our coaches.”

Radkewich emerges from the bathroom, his two-week stubble replaced by a carefully sculpted goatee. A small tattoo of a scorpion atop a heart fashionably stains his bare left shoulder. As Kemper mounts his bike, Radkewich ejects Metallica and inserts the movie he has chosen for diversion during the long afternoon: Slap Shot, a 1977 Paul Newman film that tells the story of a minor-league hockey team. “It catches the reality of an athlete’s life better than just about any other sports movie,” Radkewich says with the authority of an inveterate film buff and, of course, a lifelong athlete.

Radkewich came out of Notre Dame holding distinguished running credentials in addition to his amateur national championship. A luminous future as a pro seemed assured. But he entered the sport during the early nineties, just as American triathlon was spiraling downhill. By that time, most of the international triathlon community had abandoned Ironman-length races in favor of shorter contests that attracted more spectators and, more significant, television coverage. The abbreviated race format permitted drafting, the once illegal practice of accepting and giving wind-shielding aid during the bike leg. Americans resisted the change, especially the old guard led by such Californian warhorses as Scott Tinley and Mike Pigg. A split developed: Europe, Australia, and the rest of the world converted to a shorter, faster, more entertaining style of triathlon, while Americans stuck with the grueling (read “boring”), no-drafting Ironman-length events.

Still, Radkewich was fortunate enough to pluck a modest bouquet of sponsorships, including Saucony shoes and Mrs. T’s Pierogies, which together with his parents’ support allowed him to launch a career. Long, dues-paying years ensued. Radkewich logged eighth- through 12th-place finishes with depressing regularity, solid performances landing him just out of reach of the prize money. He limped along until 1998, when his attenuated lifeline of stipends and sponsorships finally snapped. There were still two long years until the Olympics. Discouraged, Radkewich nearly quit the sport, but his coach convinced him to keep on plugging. He’d need to swallow his pride, however, and take a day job. He went to work selling suits at Dillard’s department store in Colorado Springs.

Radkewich was good at it. He had a natural eye for fabric and color, for the drape of a jacket on a customer’s shoulders; he soon became the top salesman in the menswear department. Management loved him, except for the fact that he was always a few minutes late for work.

“They thought I was lazy,” Radkewich recalls with a sour smile. “They didn’t realize that by the time I was supposed to start at the store I’d already been up for three hours training.”

He finally broke through in late 1998, winning four races in a row and the U.S.O.C. Triathlete of the Year title. The prize money and renewed sponsorship contracts enabled him to make a decent, if continually uncertain, living from the sport. But Radkewich knows that another day job is only a few bad races away.

“I’d be lying if I said triathlon was still a lot of fun for me,” he says. “Racing well remains a constant intellectual and physical challenge, but I’ve spent too many hard years for the sport to be a pure kick anymore.” He falls silent for a moment, his eyes straying back to the movie. “If I make the Olympics, I’ll have achieved everything I set out to do. If I make it to Sydney, I’ll take some time off afterward to reassess.”

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.