It might not sound like much fun to the average non-athlete type out there, but for the tri-athlete, a mile-long swim in choppy waters, a 25-mile bike ride along a hilly path and a six-mile run on worn out legs is the stuff dreams are made of. Perhaps that’s why triathlon specialists like Hunter Kemper have to be just a little crazy to pursue their Olympic dreams.

But Kemper has another reason he trains like a mad man and puts his body through one of the most grueling competitions on the planet. The three-time Olympian is training for his fourth and final appearances at the Games because it’s a calling. Kemper wholeheartedly believes that he was meant to be a tri-athlete. And it’s hard to argue with the 2003 Pan American gold medalist and winner of numerous international events.

In this Inspiring Athletes interview, Kemper talks about what it takes to be a tri-athlete, why winning isn’t always the ultimate goal, and how his growing faith has inspired him to run well into his 30’s:

Chad Bonham: What are some characteristics that have guided you on your journey to becoming an elite international athlete?

U.S. Olympic tri-athlete Hunter Kemper (Photo by Dave Apol)

Hunter Kemper: You’re born with certain God-given talents and I think mine was endurance. I think I was born to do a sport that was endurance oriented. Resilience and patience are two other words I’d use. You’re definitely going to lose more races than you’re going to win. If you win a few races in a year, that’s a great race for you. If you do 12 races and you win three or four, that’s absolutely great. You have to have a lot of patience and understand that it’s a sport where you get better with age. You have a lot of talent early on but as you get older, you better understand the ins and outs and the transitions and the techniques and where to put yourself in a race. Hopefully I can use that to my advantage as I go forward.

Bonham: What was your reaction when the IOC announced that the triathlon would become an Olympic sport starting in 2000?

Kemper: I was ecstatic. When I was a kid growing up, I loved the Olympic Games. I had a great deal of respect for a lot of Olympic athletes—Rowdy Gaines and Matt Biondi in swimming, Michael Johnson in track and field. I loved those guys. I definitely wanted to be an Olympian. I always thought I’d try to do it by running. But my talents weren’t good enough at that level. I was a freshman in college in 1995 when they announced it and I couldn’t believe it. I walked on at Wake Forest just so I could improve my running. I didn’t bring my bike. I didn’t bring my swim trunks. I just wanted to be a runner and see what it was like to be a runner and go from there. It helped me develop my overall ability. My running went from being a weakness to a strength of mine. I was just trying to be a professional triathlete. But when they announced it would be in the Olympic Games, it was a whole new ball game. It was a literal jump for joy and a warming of the heart to think maybe that was my path.

Bonham: You’ve had mixed results so far in your three attempts at the Olympics. How have you dealt with the emotions that accompany either doing well or falling short?

Kemper: I have that peace because I know that triathlon doesn’t ultimately define who I am as a person. Whether I win a gold medal or not, I get my character as a person from my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I resound in that and hold true to that. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ll always be and therefore I can never be let down. You can never be let down if your faith is in the Lord. I know that and I have peace with that and it gives me a lot of strength going into my races.

Bonham: How did you become a Christian?

U.S. Olympic tri-athlete Hunter Kemper crosses the finish line (Photo by Dave Apol)

Kemper: I grew up in a Presbyterian church and went to church every Sunday growing up until I was about 10. Those early years in my life, I was always in Sunday School. I was always learning. But when you’re a kid, I don’t know if you’re really grasping the foundation of what the Gospel is all about. Gradually, we went to church less and less because sports took over that priority in our lives. During my high school years, I was more of a Christmas and Easter attendee. I totally had lost my way and I didn’t have that foundation. When I went to college, I found myself as a junior and senior gravitating towards more of my friends that were believers. I was asking questions internally. I started attending church more in college. When I moved out to Colorado Springs, I started attending Rocky Mountain Calvary Chapel and that’s where I really started diving into the Word. One day in 1999 I went home after a sermon and I just broke down. I was trying to do it on my own for so long. I just decided it was time to give my life over. In the quietness of my little rental house, I wept by myself and realized I couldn’t do it on my own anymore. It was a freeing feeling for me. I’ve tried to walk the walk along the way. My life has changed.

Bonham: How has your relationship with God impacted your athletic career?

Kemper: You have to trust your game plan and stick to it. You can’t lose patience and get drawn out of your plan. It’s the same way when it comes to our faith. Trust in the Lord and He’ll give you the strength to be on top. And if you don’t end up on top, that’s okay too. Ultimately for me, I want to run my race, do my thing and give Him credit whether in victory or defeat.

Read more about the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics in the July issue of Charisma Magazine.

And check out Chad Bonham’s latest book Glory of the Games that features 18 past and present Olympians such as Hunter Kemper, Shannon Miller, Tamika Catchings, Josh Davis, Ryan Hall, Dave Johnson and Kevin Durant discussing various biblical principles that have helped them succeed as elite international athletes.

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