Kemppel glides into her fourth Winter Games

Cross-country skier, 31, faces another uphill climb

February 08, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - At age 31, U.S. cross-country skier Nina Kemppel has done her share of living.

She made the 1992 Olympic team despite having to juggle classes at Dartmouth, climbed Mount McKinley in 1995 with her father, and is the U.S. record-holder (male or female) with 18 national cross-country titles.

Of course, none of it was quite as memorable as the time she was stabbed by a Russian with a ski pole after she got tangled up on the starting blocks.

"I think maybe I stepped on her ski or something, and she got so frustrated she just reached out and stabbed me with her pole," Kemppel said.

"It was a nice puncture wound, right in the back. Of course we were wearing white uniforms, so you can imagine how good the gushing blood looked."

Kemppel, an Anchorage, Alaska, resident, is the only member of the women's cross-country team to have been named to four Olympic Games. She trained in Norway for three years before returning home to Alaska. In the U.S. national championships, she won the sprint, 5-kilometer classical and 15-kilometer freestyle.

Her sport is not one in which Americans excel. Her 14th place in the 10-kilometer pursuit contested on the Soldier Hollow Olympic course in January was the best World Cup finish by an American since 1984, when Sue Long placed 11th.

In the Nagano Games four years ago, Kemppel was 52nd in both the 5-kilometer and 15-kilometer.

In most Olympic and World Cup events, cross-country skiers leave the starting blocks in 30-second intervals. But this year, the cross-country skiers competing in the longer events, like Kemppel in 15-kilometer, will be forced to jostle for position in a "mass start" where everyone goes at once.

"It's funny, but the women are so catty and much meaner than the men in mass starts," Kemppel said.

"The men are very polite and will let each other go by, but the women end up pushing and shoving and grabbing each other. It's like a traffic jam, and it tests your patience. Some people don't react well, and it's like road rage on skis."

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