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Monday, October 16, 2017

Jamie Kempfer pushes through injuries to become one of nation’s best

Coach Marc Burns: “She’s really lived our Tiger Tough mentality.”

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Courtesy of Mizzou Athletics

Oct. 10, 2017

On the bus ride home from the NCAA Cross Country Championship last season, coach Marc Burns took then-junior Jamie Kempfer aside.

“I told her, ‘Look, you just did something that was really special today,’” he said. “‘You’re an All-American. But you’re gonna get overshadowed. I want you to know how proud I am of you.’”

Burns was referring to then-junior Karissa Schweizer’s unexpected NCAA Championship win that same day. But Kempfer simply said, “It’s OK; I’m fine. I don’t need the spotlight.”

With both Kempfer and Schweizer entering their senior years, the pair is now the crux of the women’s team. The two are coming off highly successful seasons last year, and if the team were without Schweizer, Kempfer would easily be the star.

With Schweizer, Kempfer is happy to be out of the limelight.

“She’s really happy for Karissa,” Burns said. “I think it speaks volumes about who she is as a person.”

Being overshadowed by Schweizer was never a concern for Kempfer. There were more serious things for her to worry about.

During high school, Kempfer had an outstanding cross-country career. She was a runner-up in the 2013 Nike Midwest Regionals and placed 19th at the highly competitive Nike Cross Nationals.

That success would translate to her first two seasons at Mizzou, where she placed as high as fifth in some races and broke personal records. But she still was struggling.

“For some reason as we we went throughout the season, she wasn’t running well towards the end of her freshman and sophomore years,” Burns said.

The team came to discover that Kempfer was gluten-intolerant, and eating foods with gluten caused her to lose iron. A change in diet would lead to a breakout season last fall, but it was a strenuous process figuring out the issue, Burns said.

And even then, the injuries are not, and will never, be over for Kempfer.

Kempfer has suffered from hip dysplasia since she was young. It’s a condition where the hip socket doesn’t rotate smoothly around the hip and instead grinds and causes hip pain.

“After a really long day, you’re so exhausted that you can’t even walk up two stairs – that’s how I feel all the time,” Kempfer said. “I’m always in pain, but I take it day by day.”

Because of her condition, Kempfer doesn’t run many miles on the ground. A typical week contains at most 40 miles of running and another four to six hours swimming in the pool, Burns said.

“Really, she’s getting the aerobic work of 70 miles a week, but in a different way,” he said.

Running with hip pain all the time is tough. But having to do workouts separately from the team is another type of difficulty for Kempfer.

“I’m in the sport because I love the team atmosphere, so working out by myself wasn’t what I wanted,” Kempfer said. “But seeing the fruits of my labor pay off is worth it.”

Even though she doesn’t work out as much with the team, all Kempfer thinks about, she said, is its success.

“If that means helping my team, a little pain goes a long way,” she said. “Now, I’m running for the team. I’m doing it for them and not for me anymore.”

Her selflessness is one way she deals with her hip dysplasia. It’s also a reason why she isn’t affected by Schweizer overshadowing her. It’s why even if the public doesn’t view her as the stand-out star, her team does.

After all, dealing with constant pain and still winning All-American honors is a hard task.

“She’s tough, and she persevered,” Burns said. “A lot of people would probably have given up. She believed in her ability and the team here.”

Schweizer agreed.

“She always pushes me,” Schweizer said. “She’s truly inspirational to put in all that work, and she inspires everybody else to work.”

Due to her conditions, Kempfer won’t be racing until the later in the season, Burns said. But he knows she’ll continue to put in her very best.

“She’s really lived our Tiger Tough mentality,” Burns said.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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