With the racing world on pause as the planet continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Triathlete will dip back into the archives and revisit some of the biggest, most inspiring, and somewhat under-the-radar moments in triathlon. Today, we’re flipping the calendar back to 2007, when U.S. triathlete Hunter Kemper landed on the coveted cover of the Wheaties cereal box.
Michael Jordan. Michael Phelps. Serena Williams. Mary Lou Retton. Hunter Kemper.
What do these names have in common–aside from phenomenal athletic talent? They’ve all appeared on a Wheaties cereal box. But as a triathlete, Kemper is somewhat of an outlier among the lengthy list of athletes who have graced the cover, a tradition which was sparked in 1934 with the image of baseball legend Lou Gehrig. In fact, of the 500-plus people who have been selected to appear on the box, just three of them–Kemper, fellow U.S. Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker, and Aussie Ironman world champ Chris “Macca” McCormack–have been triathletes, with Kemper being the first.
At the time, Kemper was–and has remained–the most decorated triathlete in U.S. history. He’d already competed in two Olympic games, and would compete in two more (2008 and 2012) before retiring, making him the country’s only four-time Olympian triathlete. He was a 2005 World Champ and seven-time U.S. Elite National Champion. He was even ranked first in the world among all ITU athletes that year. Yet when compared to the massive following with other cover athletes like Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Alex Rodrigues, it would seem as though Kemper, a standout in a niche sport, was plucked from relative obscurity to represent the breakfast of champions.
Turns out, General Mills wanted more of an “everyday” guy on their Wheaties box. Speaking about the experience on the YouTube channel Amazing People, Kemper explained that he was pitched by the chief marketing officer of Hy-Vee Grocery Store, one of his sponsors. General Mills happened to be a major sponsor of the Hy-Vee Triathlon, a high-stakes race Kemper competed in for several years (and would eventually win for the first time in 2014, at 38 years old). And as an adored, affable and accomplished athlete, he was the ideal choice for a special-edition box in the build-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where he placed seventh.
Later, Kemper recalled the thrill of seeing the boxes in the cereal aisle in his local Safeway. “I took my wife in the store with me to take some pictures,” he said. “I felt like I had to ask the checkout lady if she recognized that person on the box. She said she didn’t and then I said ‘Are you sure? Look a little closer.’ She then looked back at the box and back at me and realized that I was the one on the box. She seemed pretty shocked, but it was really more enjoyable for me.”
And Kemper didn’t just appear on one box series. In 2009, he was chosen as the “relatable” athlete alongside greats like Peyton Manning, Kevin Garnett, and Albert Pujols to front Fuel, a short-lived spinoff of the Breakfast of Champions “designed to help meet the nutritional needs of today’s champion athletes.” General Mills poured millions into the cereal’s development, which was documented in a six-part web series (it was later pulled from shelves in 2013). Kemper took the Fuel gig enthusiastically, although he scoffed at the idea that the average athlete could truly relate to him.
“What do you mean I’m relatable? I run a four-minute mile. I shave my legs for a living. I’m not relatable,’” he later said. “They said there are a lot of people doing my sport just trying to stay in shape and get healthy. I took it as a compliment, and if you look at the box, I’m at the very edge. I’m barely on there. I was still happy to be a part of it.”
In a sparkling career that spanned decades and took Kemper across the planet and atop many podiums, the Wheaties box remains one of the now 44-year-old father of five’s proudest achievements. Upon being inducted into USAT Hall of Fame in 2018, Hunter listed landing on the cereal box among his top accomplishments.
“I spent my professional career resetting goals and dreaming bigger dreams about what I thought was actually possible,” he said. “It’s all been part of my sweet journey in a sport that I dearly love.”