SAN DIEGO, Calif. - In an emotional and dramatic finish, Hunter Kemper and Manuel Huerta ran to spots on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team with fifth- and ninth-place finishes, respectively, Saturday at the ITU World Triathlon San Diego.
Kemper (Colorado Springs, Colo.) earned his fourth consecutive Olympic berth with a time of 1 hour, 49 minutes, 17 seconds on the 1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike and 10-kilometer run course. The Cuban-born Huerta (Miami, Fla.) crossed the line ninth in 1:49:31 to lock up his first Olympic Games appearance.
Great Britain's Jonathan Brownlee claimed the win in 1:48:46, with Sven Riederer of Switzerland (1:48:52) and South Africa's Richard Murray (1:49:02) rounding out the podium.
According to USA Triathlon's 2012 Olympic qualification criteria, two men could qualify for the U.S. Olympic roster in San Diego, provided they both placed in the top nine. Kemper and Huerta did just that thanks to a pair of sub 31-minute 10k performances after 56 men - including all seven Americans - took to the run within 25 seconds of one another. Huerta was nine seconds in front of the 10th-place finisher, New Zealand's Kris Gemmell, to secure his spot in London.
"I knew that it would come down to the run," Huerta said. "The past couple weeks I've been focusing on my run, especially my running off the bike. I did very hard bikes and then I'd come down and do runs. I was pretty much on the last pack on the swim, but I stayed positive; I stayed calm. We caught up and then I set myself in very good position on the bike on the last couple laps, and then I went out with my heart and then gave everything I had."
The 36-year-old Kemper joins Canada's Simon Whitfield and Germany's Anja Dittmer as the only three athletes to have currently qualified for all four Olympic triathlons - Sydney, Athens, Beijing and, now, London. Saturday marked Kemper's first race since suffering a broken elbow at the Myrtle Beach ITU Pan American Cup in October 2011.
"It's a tremendous day for me; I didn't know if I would actually be back here. I went through so much ... It's been a struggle," said Kemper, who has been the top U.S. male finisher in all three Olympic triathlons with a top finish of seventh in Beijing.
"Ultimately, you always want to settle it on a race course. You don't want a selection committee to decide who's going to go to the Olympic Games," said Kemper, regarding the fact that a discretionary selection would have been named to the Olympic Team if two Americans did not place in the top nine in San Diego. "I did that today, and so did Manny, and that means a lot. I'm just happy to go back and represent my country. There's no better feeling than representing the USA."
For Huerta, who moved to the U.S. from his native Cuba at age 13, qualifying for the London Games was especially emotional and represented a way to honor his mother, who sacrificed much to help make a better life for her family in Miami.
"Today is Mother's Day weekend so this is the best gift I can give her - that I didn't give up on my fight, on my dream. [so she doesn't give up] on her fight with cancer," Huerta said. "All those things have been on my mind, affecting me a little bit. Hopefully she'll be in London as well watching me from the stands."
Universal Sports will broadcast the ITU World Triathlon San Diego elite races next weekend with the women's event set for Saturday, May 19 at 1 p.m. Eastern and the men's race following Sunday, May 20 at 1 p.m. Eastern.
The eight-event ITU World Triathlon Series is a key proving ground for the United States' top triathletes aiming for a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team. In addition to racing for WTS points, athletes also will be looking to earn points toward securing a spot for their country at the 2012 Olympic Triathlon in London. The ITU Olympic Qualification Period closes May 31, 2012.
ITU World Triathlon San Diego
(1,500m swim, 40k bike, 10k run)
Top Ten Men -
1. Jonathan Brownlee (GBR), 1:48:46
2. Sven Riederer (SUI), 1:48:52
3. Richard Murray (RSA), 1:49:02
4. Mario Mola (ESP), 1:49:08
5. Hunter Kemper (Colorado Springs, Colo.), 1:49:17
6. Ryan Sissons (NZL), 1:49:22
7. Tim Don (GBR), 1:49:25
8. Bevan Docherty (NZL), 1:49:29
9. Manuel Huerta (Miami, Fla.), 1:49:31
10. Kris Gemmell (NZL), 1:49:40
Photo Credit: Hunter Kemper qualified for his fourth Olympic team Saturday in San Diego (Paul Phillips/Competitive Image).