Hunter Kemper's athletic career began as a swimmer at the age of six. These days, he swims about 16 to 18 miles a week.
But there's still this one small problem as he prepares for the triathlon at the Athens Olympics. Despite his fluid history, Kemper has a deep, abiding fear of swimming in open water.
"I never swim without a partner in the ocean," Kemper said at a summit of U.S. Olympic athletes in May. "But with 50 guys, I'll have lots of company. As long as I know there's no alligators or sharks, as long as I'm not going to get a limb taken off, I'm going to be OK."
So should fellow Olympic triathlete Barb Lindquist, the No. 1-ranked woman in the world who participated in her first U.S. Olympic Trials 16 years ago -- as a swimmer. If Kemper and Lindquist can manage to survive the 1.5-kilometer swim in the Mediterranean Sea -- still their specialties -- they both have a realistic chance to bring home a medal.
The triathlon, all things considered, is among the most difficult of Olympic sports. Athletes will swim 1.5 kilometers (.9 miles) off the coast of Vouliagmeni, south of Athens, cycle a hilly 40-kilometer course (24.8 miles) along the Mediterranean, then finish with a 10-kilometer sprint (6.2 miles). Oh, and it will be hot and humid and the pressure will be enormous.
"We're going to be on the Mediterranean, which has a nice breeze," said Lindquist, optimistically. "We'll get the breeze, so it won't be 100 degrees for us."
There is no downplaying the training effort required of a world-class triathlete.
Lindquist, who lives in Colorado Springs near the Olympic training center, runs and cycles six days a week and swims three days a week.
"It's definitely a full-time job when you add it all up," she said. "I swim, bike and run about 35 hours a week, and then there's another six hours of strength training and stretching. Then, on top of that, there's massages, planning meals and so on."
Kemper, a fixture in the men's top 10, has a similar regimen. In addition to the miles he swims in the pool, he estimates that he logs 60 to 70 miles on foot and 250 miles on the bicycle. Kemper consumes about 4,000 calories each day to fuel his training -- and his body fat still hovers around 4 percent.
Unlike most triathletes, Kemper started early in the discipline. A friend dragged him to a race when he was 10.
"I won my very first race, beat all the other 10 year olds," Kemper said. "I was like 'This is cool. I want to do this.' "
And though he played baseball, soccer and tennis growing up in Longwood, Fla., he saw himself competing in triathlons. He got his picture in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd when he became the first 13-year-old to win the senior division (ages 11-14) at the IronKids Triathlon national championships. Triathletes are notorious perfectionists and Kemper was no different; he ran cross country and track at Wake Forest and lettered all four years because he wanted to work on running, his weakest event.
When it was announced in 1995 that the triathlon would become an event in the 2000 Olympics, Kemper jumped in with both feet. He had watched Mike Pigg and Mark Allen win national championships and he thought he could compete at that level. After he won his first professional race in 1998 he was pretty sure he had made the right decision. When he made the 2000 Olympic team, he knew for sure.
Kemper was the first American across the line in Sydney, but 16 other racers beat him. Since then, Kemper, 28, has improved dramatically. His victory in the 2003 ITU World Cup in Madrid was the first for a U.S. male since 1994. Kemper helped win three spots for the U.S. in Athens with a seventh-place finish at the ITU World Championships.
"Over the past three years, I think I proved to myself that I can race against the best guys in the world, whereas in 2000 I didn't totally believe that," Kemper said. "I now know what it takes to win these races and what I have to do."
Lindquist started faster than Kemper in her swimming career, but her Olympic wait was far longer.
She set a number of state high school records in Wyoming (some of which still stand today), earned a swimming scholarship at Stanford and won medals for the United States at the Pan-American Games in 1987 and 1991. She retired from swimming when she graduated in 1991 and moved back to her native Wyoming.
"I went back to live in Jackson and enjoy life because I worked hard for so many years," Lindquist said. "But I think I eventually missed having a goal of something to train for. I had run track in high school, and when I moved back I bought a road bike, so I had all three things. My friend was doing a triathlon and I said, 'Hey, I can do that.'
"And I did one, did well, got hooked."
She was the favorite to represent the U.S. in Sydney, but she crashed her bike twice in one qualifying race and was forced to drop out of the Team Trials due to the heat, an experience she describes as "almost like a death."
Lindquist added, "It wasn't like I was beaten by somebody better on the day, it was like God was saying I have another plan for you."
The plan, apparently, was to run her first Olympic race at the ripe old age of 35.
"Personally, I think I've been really smart in my training," she said. "I've never gone over the edge and gotten too greedy. I've paced myself over the career. I'm smarter, more race-savvy. A lot of races are tactical, like chess. I've played a lot of chess games.
"I had my first Olympic trials 16 years ago, so it's amazing to me that finally I get to go to the big show. I hope it's an encouragement for women and all athletes out there. I mean some people think 30 is old. I hear them talk about Andre Agassi being the grandfather of the sport, you know, at 30.
"I'm still getting faster."