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Triathlete relying on God’s strength

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tim Ellsworth, who was in Beijing Aug. 6-16, is continuing his coverage of the 2008 Olympics for Baptist Press. Ellsworth, director of news and media relations at Union University, has been assisted with photography by David McIntyre, a freelancer based in Asia. Baptist Press will publish features about Christian athletes in the Olympics and give results of their competition as well as highlight and summarize the Summer Games, which end Aug. 25. Also, Tim will blog about each day’s highlights.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Hunter Kemper was down to his last chance of making the U.S. Olympic team in the triathlon, and things didn’t look good.

The trials process for the sport consists of three races. Kemper had failed to qualify during the first two. Then a few months before the final race, he developed a sports hernia that caused a tremendous amount of pain. He wanted desperately to avoid surgery because that would have ended his Olympic hopes.

A few weeks before the race, Kemper was beginning to face reality.

“I think I’m going to have to get the surgery,” Kemper told his wife. “I just cannot go on training like I am now. It’s too painful.”

As a last-ditch effort to avoid surgery, Kemper got a cortisone-type injection four weeks before the last trials race. To Kemper’s delight, the pain started subsiding. He began to train more effectively.

The trials race came on June 22 in Des Moines, Iowa. Normally Kemper is nervous before his races. This day, however, he felt an unusual sense of peace. He was trusting in God’s strength and relying upon the words from his favorite Bible verse, Isaiah 40:31: “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

“That would kind of epitomize what I was going through that day,” Kemper said. “I felt like He just carried me through that day. I didn’t have any pain at all for that last trials race, and I think a lot of that is God taking it away.”

Kemper managed to win the race, securing a place in his third Olympics. He finished 17th in the triathlon in Sydney in 2000, then ninth in Athens in 2004. He will compete in Beijing on Tuesday, or Monday night in the United States.

“I’m definitely back in the underdog role again,” Kemper said. “But I’m capable of getting on the podium. That’s a goal that I have for myself, to get on the podium.”

The triathlon is largely an endurance event consisting of a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run. Kemper has been competing in such events since he was 10, when he was growing up in Orlando, Fla. His first triathlon race was a 100-yard swim, a five-kilometer bike ride and a one-kilometer run.

“It took 17 minutes,” Kemper recalled. “I won my very first race. I think there were only three other 10-year-olds in the race. There weren’t many other kids out there. But I didn’t care.”

Since then Kemper has continued to train and to excel in the sport. He was ranked number one in the world in 2006 and 2007. While the ability to perform well in all three legs of the race is important, Kemper said the running stage is the most important — especially since drafting is legal in the cycling competition. That results in several athletes riding together in packs and starting the final leg at about the same time.

“Pretty much the best triathletes in the world usually are some of the best runners in the world as well,” Kemper said. “Because running is the last leg and you get off the bike with other athletes, you have to outrun them in order to win the race.”

Kemper tries to speak of the Lord’s work every time he finishes a race. He figures if that’s what’s on his mind, that will be what comes out of his mouth.

“As athletes, when you compete, you can fall under this false sense of security that you’re the one getting these medals,” Kemper said. “We’re the ones that are doing this on our own strength.”

But Kemper knows from experience that such thinking is only an illusion. He recognizes that he is where he is because of God’s work in his life. And whatever the outcome of his race in Beijing, he intends to use his sport of triathlon as a means of testifying about God’s grace.

“I hope that I can perform up to my abilities, and that the Lord gives me strength that day,” he said. “Whether it’s a good race or whether it’s a bad race, I’m going to give Him all the credit.”

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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