ANCHORAGE — 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Information from: Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.adn.com