Kemppel braces for wild start

Posted: Friday, February 08, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- For someone born in a Colorado canyon after her mother fell while rock climbing, Alaska's Nina Kemppel seems uniquely qualified for the mad-scramble start to her first race of these Winter Olympics.

Kemppel is competing Saturday in the 15-kilometer cross-country freestyle, which this year will go off marathon style instead of the traditional, single-file, staggered beginning.

Having gone through two such starts in her career, Kemppel -- the first woman to make four U.S. Olympic cross-country teams -- knows how wild it will be.

''It's like rush-hour traffic,'' Kemppel said Wednesday. ''You have a tolerance to some point, then someone will snap. And you never know who it's going to be or what language they're going to use.

''It's kind of fun to the athletes because if you're right behind this road rage when it's going on, you can laugh at it. But if you're actually in the fight, it can be kind of scary.''

Foreign four-lettered words, cracked gear -- Kemppel has experienced it all.

Once: ''I stepped on one of the Russian's skis and she wasn't pleased about it. She took her pole and just stabbed me right in the backside. We were wearing white suits, so it was very nice -- a puncture wound, a little blood.''

Another time: ''I made it 100 yards before I fell the first time, 200 yards before I broke my pole and was in second-to-last place going out of the stadium. Having said that, I learned a lot.''

The lesson was the game plan she'll be carrying into Saturday's race, one of five events she'll compete in at her final Olympics.

''You're not trying to get to the front immediately,'' she said. ''You have time, so you have to do it smartly. The strategy is to stay close behind the main pack because after about 5K people get tired enough and stop fighting with each other and start skiing.''

Why go through such madness?

''Excitement,'' said Kemppel, of Anchorage. ''I think the athletes are looking forward to it.

''Racing against yourself is fun and challenging, but racing against a pack is exhilarating. It's something new. You know exactly where you're sitting, exactly what you have to do to win the gold medal.''

The 31-year-old Kemppel is all about adventure. And it began early.

Her mother was 8 1/2 months pregnant when a rock climbing spill induced labor. Kemppel was born in the canyon before her mother could get to a hospital.

Six months later, her father hooked up a harness so she could join her parents on rock climbing expeditions. A childhood filled with outdoor challenges spawned a cross-country career that's produced 18 national championships.

In 1995, a year after her second Olympics, she climbed Alaska's Mount McKinley with her father. They spent three weeks on the highest peak in North America -- two climbing and one shut in their camp at 14,000 feet because of a storm.

''I got so bored that I started tunneling between tents,'' she said.

Her parents are still outdoor junkies. They've spent the last week in Moab, Utah, their car filled with so much climbing and skiing gear they had no room to bring her boyfriend.

Kemppel and her dad are planning another mountain challenge this spring, celebrating her retirement from competitive skiing and his 60th birthday.

They're eyeing Mount Hunter, which is near McKinley but a different kind of climb.

''Much more technical,'' she said, ''much more deadly.''

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