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Meal Ticket

June 06, 2005
June 06, 2005

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June 6, 2005

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Meal Ticket

Two-time Olympian Hunter Kemper credits an improved diet for his sudden rise to the top of the world rankings

You know that Enormous Omelet Sandwich that Burger King came out with a couple of months ago? The one with a sausage patty, two eggs, two slices of cheese, three strips of bacon--and 760 calories and 50 grams of fat? The one that has been decried as a siren song to an already obese nation? Two-time Olympic triathlete Hunter Kemper has had an eye on it. "I haven't tried one of those, but I'm dying to," he says. "That is totally my style."

This is an article from the June 6, 2005 issue Original Layout

For now, however, the Enormous Omelet is nothing more than a mouthwatering fantasy for Kemper, and that may explain why after years of being very good, he has moved to his sport's highest level. Kemper, who finished 17th at the 2000 Sydney Games and ninth last year in Athens, has gotten off to such a fast start in '05 that he has become the first American man to be No. 1 in the world since the International Triathlon Union (ITU) began its world rankings, in 1991.

Kemper opened his season on April 16 with a second-place finish at the ITU Honolulu Triathlon World Cup. He came back the next week and won in Mazatlan, Mexico. That victory moved Kemper, who finished sixth in the world last year, to the top spot. He solidified his hold on that position with a runner-up finish in a World Cup race in Japan on May 15. Kemper hadn't planned to enter the event in Japan, but when he saw that he had started the season in better shape than the rest of the field, he booked the flight. "I was going there trying to keep the ball rolling," he says. It continues to roll: On May 22 he logged another win, in a race in Tempe, Ariz.

Kemper has no simple explanation for his fast start. His regimen during the January-March off-season was the same one he has always followed: He trained in all three events on most days, and in an average week he swam 30,000 meters (about 19 miles), biked 250 miles and ran 65 to 70 miles. The one meaningful change he has made over the past year, though, involves his diet. Once a junk-food fanatic, he's trying to eat healthfully. Mark Fretta, a triathlete on the U.S. team, has been friends with Kemper since 2001, when the two lived across the hall from each other in a dorm at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Fretta recalls that Kemper would top off nearly every cafeteria dinner with a Butterfinger milk shake. Kemper began to change his diet two years ago, when he married Val Sterk, a former national-team volleyball player. "I know they don't have the milk shake machine at their house," Fretta says.

Kemper started getting serious about his diet during the run-up to the Athens Olympics. He has cut back on Krispy Kreme doughnuts--which were served at his wedding--and fast-food hamburgers. His new diet includes fruit smoothies and, for the first time in his life, salads. "I still occasionally go out and have a burger or some Mountain Dew, but I'm trying to be more focused on eating to fuel my body," he says.

World Cup triathlons are contested at the Olympic distance--competitors swim 1,500 meters, bike 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) and run 10 kilometers (6.2 miles)--and should not be confused with Ironman events. The famous Ironman Triathlon World Championship, held each October in Hawaii, consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

Kemper says he might compete in Ironman events someday, but he has no interest in them now because training for longer distances sounds boring. He's also focused on a bigger prize. Kemper will be 32 in 2008, and the Beijing Games will be his last shot at a medal. "I haven't accomplished enough in the Olympic distance to really feel satisfied yet," he says. "Winning the gold medal is still a goal. I'm still hungry for that." Which means the Enormous Omelet Sandwiches will have to wait.

Leading Women

Hunter Kemper may be the first male U.S. triathlete to hold the ITU's top ranking, but U.S. women have ended a year No. 1 on six occasions. Why have men lagged behind? Through the early '90s top male triathletes were more likely to focus on the longer-distance Ironman events. But then intermediate-distance triathlons were added to the Olympics for the 2000 Games, and prize money for those races went up. Suddenly the intermediate distance didn't look so bad. Here are the U.S. women who have claimed the ITU's top ranking at the end of a season.

1991 Karen Smyers 1992 Melissa Mantak

2001 Siri Lindley

2002 Siri Lindley

2003 Barb Lindquist

2004 Barb Lindquist

COLOR PHOTODENISE BOYNTON/ADRENALINE PHOTOSRIDING HIGH Kemper, who has won twice this year, is gearing up for the 2008 Beijing Games.COLOR PHOTOJEFF FUENTEBELLA (INSET)  [See caption above.]