Hunter Kemper

A healthy Hunter Kemper still has it

Seventeenth in the Sydney Games in 2000, ninth in Athens in 2004, seventh in Beijing in 2008, Hunter Kemper, who turns 35 next month, made plain this past weekend that he's very much in the mix for a fourth Olympics by winning the ITU Triathlon World Cup race in Ishigaki, Japan. To be a four-time Olympian is, of course, a comparatively unusual thing. You have to stay motivated. You have to stay healthy. You have to maybe even be a little bit lucky.

To be a four-time Olympian in an endurance sport -- that's asking even more. More than anything, you have to have what Hunter Kemper has at his core. "I still have a love and a passion for it," he said.

The question that plainly presents itself, at 34 going on 35: is that going to be enough?

When healthy, for sure, it's enough.

That's what Ishigaki showed. When he's healthy, he's still as good as anyone.

The victory Sunday made for Kemper's World Cup win since 2005.

He finished in 1 hour, 50 minutes, 32 seconds. The Olympic-style event, of course, includes a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-km bike ride and then a 10-km run.

Artem Parienko of Russia took second, 15 seconds back; Marek Jaskolka of Poland came in third, just two seconds behind Parienko. The World Cup medals were the first won by either racer; Jaskolka's was the first won by any Polish triathlete.

Mark Fretta of Portland, Ore., finished 14th.

Kemper had finished second in Ishigaki, twice, in 2005 and 2006, both times behind five-time winner Courtney Atkinson of Australia.

Ishigaki, located in far southern Japan, is the longest-running World Cup race in ITU history -- held every year since 1996. It's an island, and it's so far south it looks out toward Taiwan. It's more than 1,200 miles from Ishigaki to Tokyo, and farther still to the areas to the north of Japan more directly affected by the earthquake, tsunami and radiation.

Of course, the disaster was on everyone's minds at the Ishigaki race -- particularly because the ITU was still wrestling over the weekend with what to do with a race scheduled for May 14  in Yokohama, about 185 miles south of the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor.

ITU President Marisol Casado on Tuesday announced a postponement of that May 14 event, saying the situation was "too risky," adding the federation would try to reschedule it. The event is an Olympic qualifier.

Ishigaki, though -- that race went on.  "I felt totally safe," Kemper said.

He added, "I was glad to do it, glad to support that race, celebrate sport in a few hours that might give some joy to the Japanese people."

In the swim, Russian brothers Ivan and Denis Vasiliev tried to break free from the rest of the pack. Jens Toft of Denmark joined them in the bike. Going into the transition to the run, those three were up 50 seconds against the main pack of 40.

Kemper caught them in the first lap of the run, took the lead by himself in the second lap and held to win easily.

Sounds simple enough, and it is -- again, when you're healthy.

Which Kemper hasn't been until recently.

2008 -- the dreaded sports hernia.

2009 -- a succession of nagging injuries. He raced only three times all year.

2010 -- a pelvic stress fracture and a broken collarbone.

Ouch, ouch and ouch.

Now -- better.

"The number one goal for me this year," Kemper said, "is staying healthy. If I can go the whole year and race 10 times, that's going to be a good year."

A good 2011 would, logically enough, lead to a good 2012. If logic has anything to do with it, there's this: 17th  in his first Olympics, ninth in his second, seventh in his third -- that's a trend that would seem to be pointing in the right direction.

"I like," Hunter Kemper said, "where it's going."