MIDWAY, Utah -- Nina Kemppel is the most visible American woman in a sport that's nearly invisible in America.
But the lack of star power won't stop her from pursuing glory -- and perhaps an Olympic medal -- in cross-country skiing.
''It's not exactly a glamour sport,'' Kemppel said. ''We come across the finish line with stuff all over our faces. We all look like we're going to die. But if you ask anybody out here, people really do truly love the sport.''
Kemppel collapsed Wednesday after finishing 14th in a 5-kilometer pursuit as the Nordic World Cup circuit visited the course for the 2002 Winter Olympics. But as she gasped for breath on the snow, she also was celebrating her best-ever World Cup finish in the event.
Kemppel, of Anchorage, Alaska, was 1 minute, 54 seconds behind winner Katerina Neumonnova of the Czech Republic. Italians Gabriella Paruzzi and Stefania Belmondo finished second and third.
The pursuit isn't Kemppel's specialty. She's more of a distance specialist, excelling at the 15- and 30-kilometer races that she won at last week's U.S. Nationals in McCall, Idaho.
And Kemppel knows what she's talking about when she proclaims her love for cross country. As a 30-year-old Dartmouth graduate with a degree in government, there are other things she could be doing.
Problem is, she can't break away from skiing.
''I still enjoy it. I really, really love doing it,'' she said.
Last week in Idaho, Kemppel won her 15th national title, more than any other American in Nordic skiing. Her challenge now is to raise her performance on the international level in time for the Salt Lake City Winter Games, 13 months away.
''I definitely wanted to do well here today,'' she said. ''From here on out, it's just a grind to 2002. I'm focused on the world championships next month but it's still about 2002.''
She's also trying to bury a sour feeling from the 1998 Winter Olympics, where she battled a nagging illness, barely made the U.S. team and finished way off the pace.
''I was flat-out tired,'' she recalled. ''I got a virus and unfortunately it was an Olympic year. It's really hard to go to the Olympics and then figure out you're just not one of the main competitors.''
Kemppel placed 57th overall in last year's final World Cup standings. She improved to 31st overall this season after Wednesday's race. Not bad, considering she had three races in four days last week in Idaho.
''It's not the ideal way to prepare for a World Cup event like this,'' said Jim Galanes, Kemppel's individual coach.
Galanes credits Kemppel's improved training for her strong season so far. He feels she has a good chance of reaching her goal of a top five Olympic finish if she continues to train well.
''If she has one more solid summer like she did last year, she'll close the gap on the Europeans,'' Galanes said.
This week, Kemppel is turning the tables on the Europeans in another way.
''Most of the World Cups are in Europe, and so we're used to feeling like the fish out of water when we go there,'' she said. ''It's a nice change to see them in the dining hall, wondering what the food is like.''
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