EDITOR’S NOTE: Tim Ellsworth, editor of BP Sports and director of news and media relations at Union University, is in London to cover the 2012 Olympics in tandem with Baptist Press’ London bureau. Baptist Press will publish features about Christian athletes in the Olympics, recap results of their competition and cover Baptist initiatives to share the Gospel during the Summer Games and in London’s rich cultural milieu.
LONDON (BP) — A swimmer lagging behind the field at a triathlon competition in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in October ran to his bike for the second stage of an event.
A race referee should have stopped him before he darted onto the road where the other athletes were already speeding along on their bikes. But he didn’t. Hunter Kemper slammed into him with his bike, sending Kemper tumbling and skidding along the pavement for several feet.
“It was just a freak, crazy accident,” Kemper said. “The guy in front of me swerved so fast. I tried to get out of the way, and I couldn’t do it. I never saw him until he was right there in front of me.”
Kemper sustained an injury to his arm that required surgery, with a plate and 13 screws inserted into his elbow. Two months later he developed a staph infection. He began to think that his chances for a 2012 Olympic appearance were over.
But Kemper says God healed him from the injury and enabled him to compete in the Olympic trials, where he earned a spot on the Olympic team for the fourth time. He will compete in the triathlon event on Tuesday (Aug. 7) — one of only two athletes to participate all four times since the sport became an Olympic event in 2000.
“What a journey I’ve been on the past six months,” Kemper said. “For me to overcome that, and feel like I have God every step of the way with me, it’s been real eye-opening.”
Kemper is not one to hesitate in talking about the Lord’s work in his life, although that wasn’t always the case. He attended church every weekend as a child, but the Bible wasn’t read at home, and Christianity wasn’t a major influence in his family away from church. His church attendance dwindled through high school and college.
Late in his years at Wake Forest University, however, Kemper had a group of friends who were believers. He was somehow drawn to them, and wanted what he saw in their lives. He began attending church more frequently, and a year after graduating from college, broke down in his apartment, surrendering his life to Christ.
“I felt like for the longest time I had been trying to do it on my own and by my own abilities,” Kemper said. “I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore.”
He remembers weeping uncontrollably on the day of his conversion, and says since that day he’s been trying to walk with the Lord faithfully. He admits that’s not always easy in triathlon — a sport that combines swimming 1,640 yards, cycling 26.7 miles and running 6.2 miles.
One of the challenges for him has been how he relates to sponsors. As one of the nation’s top triathletes, Kemper depends upon the revenue from sponsors for his livelihood.
“I always get the sense that if I’m too outward and too open about my faith, that maybe sponsors will back away and they won’t like that,” Kemper said.
But he’s decided that he needs to be open and upfront about his Christian beliefs, even if it may cost him sponsors. He knows that if that happens, God will provide for him in other ways.
“I want to do well for Him, but also to be able to share my faith,” Kemper said. “It’s something I pray about a lot, that if I can go out there and win, and when I win not to shy away.”
The October accident, and the subsequent complications that resulted from it, proved to be another challenge for Kemper. It humbled him and forced him to evaluate whether he had been relying on himself too much, rather than relying on the strength that comes from God.
Through the ordeal, he was able to refocus his life, putting more emphasis on his faith and his family and less on triathlon. Still, even with his priorities properly aligned, he desperately wanted to make the Olympic team again.
That looked less and less likely in the spring, as the injury cost him several months of training and competition. He prayed that if God would allow him to come back, that he would never forget that God was the one who got him back.
The Olympic qualification came in May. Kemper hadn’t participated in a triathlon since the accident in October, but he performed well enough to earn a spot on the team.
Now as he prepares to compete in London, Kemper has his eyes set on a medal. That’s been his dream ever since he was an 8-year-old boy watching the Olympics on TV. His performance in the Olympics has steadily improved, from 17th place in 2000 to ninth place in 2004 to seventh place in 2008.
At 36, Kemper knows this year will probably be his last chance to win that prized medal. But he also knows that the only thing he can control is his own effort and doing everything he can to get the best result possible.
If that result is a medal, great. If it’s fifth place, then he’ll kindly acknowledge the superior performance of his opponents — because he knows that his relationship with Christ is more important and is unaffected by his showing on the field of competition.
“Triathlon doesn’t define who I am as a person,” Kemper said. “It doesn’t define me, and that’s what’s so comforting in my life. I’m not defined by wins and losses.”
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