Alaskan athletic icon Nina Kemppel returns home

Beth Bragg
Nina Kemppel tucks into the stadium during the 4x5 km cross country relay race Thursday at Soldier Hollow. The Americans finished in 13th place.
Anne Raup / Anchorage Dai
Nina Kemppel strides long in an uphill portion of the 5k classical part of the pursuit Friday at Soldier Hollow. Kemppel finished the first race in 27th place.
Anne Raup / Anchorage Daily News
A US Ski Team staff member yells encouragement to Nina Kemppel at the start of the women's 10k classical race Tuesday at Soldier Hollow. Kemppel finished in 40th place.
Anne Raup / Anchorage Dail
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage AK tucks as she enters the stadium in the final stretch of the women's 10k classical race Tuesday at Soldier Hollow. Kemppel finished in 40th place.
Anne Raup / Anchorage
Nina Kemppel works her way towards a 4th place finish during the 5K classic race Thursday afternoon.
Anne Raup / ADN
Nina Kemppel, of the US Ski Team and the Gold 2002/APU team watches other competitors come into the finish area after the Women's 30K Freestyle race at the US Cross Country Championships. Kemppel took first overall in the race, her first overall win of the week-long event.
Marc Lester / ADN
Four-time Olympic Nordic skier Nina Kemppel is returning to Anchorage to head up the Alaska Humanities Forum. Kemppel spent much of her youth in Kincaid Park.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Four-time Olympic Nordic skier Nina Kemppel is returning to Anchorage to head up the Alaska Humanities Forum. Kemppel spent much of her youth in Kincaid Park.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Four-time Olympic Nordic skier Nina Kemppel is returning to Anchorage to head up the Alaska Humanities Forum. Kemppel spent much of her youth in Kincaid Park.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel, of the US Ski Team and the Gold 2002/APU team quickly breaks ahead of the pack at the mass start of the Women's 30K Freestyle event of the US Cross Country Championship in Utah. Kemppel finished first overall in the race on Saturday, January 15, 2000. Photo by Marc Lester
Marc Lester / ADN
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage competes in the 15K freestyle race at Soldier Hollow Saturday morning. She finished 30th in the first cross country ski race of the winter games.
Anne Raup / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage, AK skis to the best finish ever for an American woman in cross country events in the Olympics. The 30 km race Sunday at Soldier Hollow was a grueling one because of new snow and changing weather. Said Kemppel, "That was the hardest race of my life. It was a super day. It's been a really tough week for me mentally to overcome all my setbacks and stay positive. Today was a day to go out there and ski for myself. It all came from 15 years of hard training. I got thinking to myself,"Alright Nina, those last two hills you've got to ski like they're the last two hills of your career.'"
Anne Raup / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel races during the first cross country ski race of the winter Olympics. She finished 30th in the 15K freestyle race Saturday at Soldier Hollow near Midway, UT.
Anne Raup / ADN
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage is sandwiched between two other competitors during a climb up Hermod Hill on the Soldier Hollow course Saturday morning. Kemppel finished 30th.
Anne Raup / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel, left, of the US Ski and Gold 2002 teams, laughs with her podium-mates Beckie Scott of Canada, center, and Jaime Fortier of Canada. Kemppel finished the Women's 10K Classic Pursuit in second place after starting the race in the eighth position.
Marc Lester / ADN
NINA KEMPPEL OF THE USA IN ACTION TODAY DURING THE 30KM CROSS COUNTRY AT THE 1994 WINTER OLYMPICS IN LILLEHAMMER.
CLIVE BRUNSKILL / ALLSPORT
Nina Kemppel (#201) leads the pack of over 100 racers at the start of theWomen's US Cross Country Championship 15K Freestyle Race in McCall, IdahoSaturday afternoon.
Troy Maben
Nina Kemppel chats with Beckie Scott, member of Canada's ski team, before they both take the podium after placing in the Women's 15K event of the US Cross Coutry Championship. Kemppel skies for the US Ski Team, but trains with the Anchorage based Gold 2002/APU team in the summer.
Marc Lester / ADN
Nina Kemppel (#201) raises her arms in victory just after crossing the finish line first at the Women's US Cross Country Championship 15K Freestyle Race in McCall, Idaho Saturday afternoon. By winning this race, Kemppel has set a new record by winning 15 races.
Troy Maben
Nina Kemppel (#201) raises her skis above her at the awards ceremony of the Women's US Cross Country Championship 15K Freestyle Race in McCall, Idaho Saturday afternoon. Kemppel broke a record by winning her 15th race.
Troy Maben
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage races her arms in victory coming in first place overall in the Women's Olympic-qualifying Cross Country ski races at Soldier Hollow, UT Saturday. By winning a place on the team, Kemppel is the only US woman in history to go to four Olympics
Jim Lavrakas/ Anchorage Daily New
Nina Kemppel descends Mount Marathon en route to her seventh straight victory in 2002. It was her eighth win overall in the race.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel runs toward her sixth consecutive Mount Marathon women's victory. Coming down Main Street in Seward 39 seconds behind her is Kikkan Randall.
Marc Lester / ADN
Nina Kemppel races down Mt. Marathon towards her ninth victory in 2003, a new race record.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel, left, and Kikkan Randall laugh during the signing of the Golden Amateur Sports Book of Anchorage at the Atwood Concert Hall in Anchorage on Tuesday, May 27, 2003.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage shows off the Gold Cup belt buckle she won coming in first place overall in the Women's Olympic-qualifying Cross Coutnry ski races at Soldier Hollow, UT Saturday. By winning a place on the team, Kemppel is the only US woman in history to go to four Olympics.
Jim Lavrakas / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage tucks on the Whales Tail hill on the Soldier Hollow course during Saturday morning's race, 2/9/02. She finished 30th.
Anne Raup / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage at Saturday morning's Olympic race. She finished 30th.
Anne Raup / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage races her arms in victory coming in first place overall in the Women's Olympic-qualifying Cross Country ski races at Soldier Hollow, UT Saturday. By winning a place on the team, Kemppel is the only US woman in history to go to four Olympics.
Jim Lavrakas/ Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage strides up the first hill in the Women's 15k Classic race at Soldier Hollow, UT Saturday. By winning a place on the team, Kemppel is the only US woman in history to go to four Olympics.
Jim Lavrakas/ Anchorage Daily News
Olympian Nina Kemppel and her mother Mary Kemppel, who gives cross country ski lessons, demonstrate the V-2 skate ski technique.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel demonstrates the V-1 technique of skate skiing at Hillside Ski Trails in Anchorage. Shifting one's weight over the forward ski is important to the techhique.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
Nina Kemppel prepares for her last Olympic race Sunday at Soldier Hollow.
Anne Raup / Anchorage Daily News

Nina Kemppel is making a triumphant return home, armed with an MBA, a killer resume that includes consultant work for Fortune 500 companies and a new job as the CEO and president of the Alaska Humanities Forum.

So of course her first interview upon arriving home is with a sportswriter.

Kemppel, for those who need reminding, was the original Kikkan Randall.

The queen of U.S. nordic skiing for more than a decade -- during which she competed in four Winter Olympics and claimed 18 national championships -- Kemppel was a role model for Randall and hundreds of others during her reign.

Her domain extended to Seward's Mount Marathon, where she owns a record nine victories, including eight in a row.

These days, business suits have crowded out race suits in her closet. Just the other day, Kemppel had to ask husband Michael if he knew where her roller skis were. She hasn't used them since 2002, the year of her last Olympics.

Being back home means Kemppel, 41, is once again thinking about things like roller skiing. It's not as if she doesn't ski anymore -- just a week or so ago, she was cross-country skiing in 92-degree temperatures in Bend, Ore. -- but she is bound to ski more now that she's back in what is arguably the cross country ski capital of North America.

Women in the 40-45 age group don't need to start shaking in their ski boots just yet, though.

"I generally don't compete anymore, but a lot of that has been time more than anything," Kemppel said. "I've become more and more of a weekend warrior because of my job."

With her new job, she has come full circle. After living in Boston and Portland for most of the last 10 years, Kemppel is back in the place she never stopped calling home, the place where her parents, Roger and Mary, still live and the place where her sister, Denali, has a young family and works as an attorney.

In an interview last week at Kincaid Park, the place she toiled religiously as a youngster to develop the work ethic, endurance and technique that made her the most successful American woman in the sport until Randall came along, Kemppel talked about where life has taken her since she retired as an athlete, changing Mount Marathon and whether Anchorage could host the Winter Olympics.

THE CAREER PATH

A 1988 West High graduate and 1993 Dartmouth College graduate, Kemppel retired from the U.S. Ski Team after the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. She spent one season skiing for the Fischer factory team before returning to Dartmouth in 2003 to earn a masters degree at the Tuck School of Business.

"I went from training five hours a day and sitting very little to sitting in class and studying for 13 hours a day," she said. "So it was an interesting experience."

She spent three years with the Boston consulting firm Oliver Wyman, working with a number of Fortune 500 companies, before joining the Coraggio Group in Portland, Ore., where her clients included non-profit companies.

While working with the mission-based businesses that serve and contribute to their communities, Kemppel found a fire similar to what she knew as ski racer.

"As an elite athlete, you are so passionate about what you do, and you struggle to find something you can feel as passionate about after your career is over," she said. "I missed that passion."

THE NEW JOB

When the non-profit Alaska Humanities Forum needed a new leader, Kemppel found another job she can feel passionate about.

The Forum uses the humanities to help preserve and share the state's history and culture, and it works to build bridges between urban and rural communities. It isn't as well known as, say, the Rasmuson Foundation, but Kemppel hopes to raise its profile while continuing its mission.

"I am really looking forward to working together with the incredible team at the Alaska Humanities Forum and to part of an organization that provides great projects and programs in Alaska," she said.

But before she can dive into her new job, she's off to another Olympics.

THE OTHER JOB

In 2010, Kemppel began a four-year term on the U.S. Olympic Committee's board of directors, a prestigious position with considerable influence. It was the 15-member board, for example, that decided the United States would not put in a bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

"It's a pretty big honor," she said. "I would say an honor and a responsibility."

Its members include the CEOs of Xerox and EA, a former Microsoft president, the Big 12 commissioner and the creator of the Discover Channel, among others.

Kemppel said she doesn't use her position to be an advocate for nordic skiing, but she certainly uses it to be an advocate for athletes.

"They'll ask me: 'What's the athlete's point of view?' '' Kemppel said.

AN ANCHORAGE OLYMPICS

With the next two Winter Olympics in Russia (2014) and South Korea (2018) and the USOC deciding not to put in a bid for 2022, Anchorage -- the country's bid city in 1992 and 1994 -- can't make another run at the Games until 2026.

Kemppel said she knows people in town who are eager to bring the Olympics to Alaska.

"I would love to see it happen," she said.

But she offers a dose of reality.

"Alaska's challenge is it's small," she said, and lacks much of the infrastructure and venues needed. "Salt Lake City already had the venues. It would be more expensive for us."

MOUNT MARATHON

One of Mount Marathon's greatest champions, Kemppel has heard the talk about how to make the Fourth of July race safer in the wake of this year's tragedies -- one runner missing on the mountain and presumed dead, another in a coma, another facing a long recovery after being released from the hospital.

The concerns are valid, she said.

But again, she provides a reality check for those talking about establishing a set trail up and down the 3,022-foot peak, or requiring helmets, or making certain parts of the mountain off-limits.

"Even if you do all those things, there is still an inherent risk in the race, which is why people love to run it and why people love to watch it," Kemppel said. "You can do all of that and at the end of the day, it's still inherently dangerous and people are still taking risks.

"... I have this image going through my head of 300 people at the starting line wearing helmets. Nothing against that, but to make it mandatory? There's a lot of long-time veterans who will be opposed to that.

"More important than a helmet is going down and training on the mountain and understanding your route."

As for her return to the mountain, where she hasn't raced since 2005?

"I am certain I will do Mount Marathon again," she said.

LOOKING BACK

Until she returned to Dartmouth in 2003, Kemppel spent years as an elite, fulltime athlete. For many years, her life was all about training and racing.

When that part of her life ended, she had a plan. She's one of those lucky athletes who finds success after sports, in part because her pursuit of education helped her create her own safety net.

Sometimes, though, she misses being an Olympic athlete.

"There's a lot I don't miss," she said. "I don't miss being on the road so much. I don't miss skiing in the rain on Eagle Glacier.

"But what I really miss is not having that high level of fitness and body-awareness."

She said she has gained some weight, though she looks as lean as ever. And heaven knows that if and when she resumes ski racing, even at a recreational level -- which in Anchorage is a pretty high level -- she will be a formidable presence on the trails.

Kemppel vowed as much the last time she raced, back when she was working on her MBA and she entered a 50-kilometer ski race that included a 4,000 climb up New Hampshire's Mount Washington.

"I was not in good shape and I had just finished finals," Kemppel said. "I did not have my wax technician with me so I did my own skis, which created a problem."

Then as the race went on, she hit the wall. With both her skis and her body letting her down, Kemppel struggled as other skiers went by.

"Everyone said, 'It's such an honor to pass you,' and I said right then, I am not going to race again until I'm in shape."

Several years have passed since then. Now that Kemppel is back home, wondering where her roller-skis are, she could be back in action in no time.

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

Photos: Nina Kemppel through the years
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News