For more than a decade, Nina Kemppel reigned as America’s queen of the ski trails and Alaska’s queen of the mountain, doing so with equal parts style and substance.
Her record as one of the country’s best cross-country skiers is documented in the U.S. record books. During an international racing career that spanned 13 years and four Winter Olympics, Kemppel claimed a record 18 national championships. In her swan song at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, she skied to 15th place in the 30-kilometer classical race, which at the time marked the highest Olympic finish in history by an American woman.
During an era when the U.S. Ski Team seldom placed skiers among the top 30 at a World Cup race, Kemppel set new standards. She became the first woman in years to reach the top 20, and then improved on that by cracking the top 15.
Along the way, she mentored countless skiers, young and old. She possessed an unfaltering commitment to training, but she was never too preoccupied to offer advice, inspiration or autographs to aspiring athletes and admiring fans.
She was a woman for all seasons. Come summer, Kemppel turned to the mountains for training, competition and pure joy. She scaled Mount McKinley, but it was on a much smaller mountain in Seward that she became an Alaska legend. Kemppel won the famous Mount Marathon race nine times, including eight in a row. No other man or woman can make the same claim.
Among Alaskans, her dominance of the popular mountain run sometimes eclipsed her historic ski career. As Kemppel flew home at the end of a World Cup season one year, a woman on the plane approached her. Kemppel naturally assumed the woman knew about her Olympic accomplishments. She was wrong.
“You’re that woman! You’re that woman!” the stranger said. “You’re that woman who wins Mount Marathon all the time!”
Ever polite, Kemppel smiled. “I actually ski, too,” she said.
Did she ever.
– Beth Bragg