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Alaska's Nina Kemppel finishes 30th in last Olympics

Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2002

MIDWAY, Utah (AP) -- Even a seasoned veteran like four-time Olympic cross-country skier Nina Kemppel can make a strategic error in a race. The best she can hope is that those mistakes don't happen at a big event like the Olympics.

But Kemppel, 31, seriously miscalculated Saturday at the women's 15-kilometer freestyle race at the XIX Winter Olympics.

''I told my mom, ''Don't worry, I'll be able to find you after the race,' '' she said.

''Well, no way.''

At a place where you're as likely to hear someone speak Estonian as English, the most foreign thing on this day was the number of Americans watching a cross-country ski race.

An estimated 11,000 people showed up for the women's 15-K and men's 30-K races at Soldier Hollow. Though attendance records don't exist in this sport, it was easily the biggest crowd ever to watch a cross-country ski race in America. Previous Olympics in Lake Placid and Squaw Valley didn't draw anything like this.

Kemppel, who is accustomed to seeing maybe 50 fans at U.S. races, didn't have a chance of spotting her parents afterward.

Not that she was complaining.

''To have 2,000 people on the last hill yelling Go, Nina!' is probably the highlight of my career,'' said Kemppel, whose 30th-place finish was the second-best ever by an American Olympian at this distance. ''The fact that there's (so many) fans that know you and are excited for you, that's what the Olympics are all about.

''A medal comes with the ultimate performance. This shows there is more than having a perfect athletic day. I cannot complain about a day like today,'' she told the Anchorage Daily News.

Spectators filled the bleachers and lined the trail. Every part of the course visible from the stadium was lined with fans.

They waved American flags -- and Alaska flags -- and shouted encouragement to the U.S. skiers.

''Every uphill I went up, I heard my name,'' said Anchorage skier Lars Flora, who finished 56th in the men's 30-K race. ''I had a great time skiing out there. It was a great Olympic experience.''

It's safe to assume that many people in the crowd couldn't have named a single American cross-country skier a week ago. This is not the most spectator-friendly sport in the world.

But recent years have brought significant changes that make cross-country skiing more accessible, among them the sprint race and mass starts.

Saturday's mass starts were the first in Olympic history. Traditionally, skiers start one at a time in intervals. Staggered starts make it hard to know what is going on, because the first person across the line isn't necessarily the winner.

But the mass start produced a thrilling sprint finish for a gold medal in the women's race as well as a sprint for silver in the men's race.

Andrew Johnson of Greensboro, Vt., who placed 22nd and was the top American in the men's race, likes mass starts because they get the crowd charged up.

And whether it was the head-to-head competition created by a mass start or a surge of national pride, this crowd was excited.

''I was expecting a normal ski race in America -- coaches and a few spectators. In Alaska you get 40 or 50 people but nothing like this,'' Kemppel said. ''There were people trying to race you uphill and little kids waving flags. It was kind of a cross-country skier's dream if you're an American cross-country skier.''

Could this be the beginning of a trend? Maybe, especially if organizers keep scheduling mass starts and races like the pursuit and sprint.

Peter Hale is a former Alaskan who is a ski technician for Madshus, a Scandinavian ski manufacturer. He has been involved with biathlon and cross-country skiing for more than 30 years, and he thinks such innovations will help the sport grow in popularity.

The sport ''has had to address for years the image that skiers go into the woods and come back a couple hours later,'' he said. ''Is this going to help people come out? I think it will.''

Flora said the biggest crowd he has ever seen in this country before Saturday was several thousand people at the popular American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin. But the vast majority of them were racers, not spectators.

So this was novel.

''It was crazy,'' said Flora, the second American finisher in 56th place. ''I had a great time skiing out there.''

So did Kemppel.

''I've never had so much fun in a ski race,'' she said. ''This is my last Olympics, and to have it be this exciting for the sport and the athletes -- there's no better way to finish up a career.''

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Distributed by The Associated Press



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