It’s been a long road to the Tokyo Olympics for suburban Geneva-native Kevin McDowell, including a battle against cancer and competition struggles that left him on the verge of potentially quitting the sport, but he will finally get his opportunity in the spotlight this week in the men's triathlon.
McDowell, one of three American men to qualify for the race, is a seven-time World Triathlon Cup medalist and the 2017 USA Triathlon Elite national champion, but his biggest victory in his life came after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2011.
“My whole world was upside down where I was actually, instead of focusing on trying to win the world title, I was fighting for my life to beat cancer,” he recalled.
When he learned that there was a strong chance he could beat it and his doctors put a treatment plan in place, the drive that brought him to becoming a star athlete kicked in.
"The doctor looked at me, she's like, 'Give me six months of your life and then you're gonna be good and we're gonna beat this thing,'" he said. "And so for me, I took that to heart and I was like six months? OK, let's do this. I can commit to six months - that's going to be my new goal, my new focus, making sure I beat this thing the best I can and walk out of this in the best situation I can."
As he entered his first chemotherapy treatment, McDowell credits the words of a stranger for helping to get him through the journey ahead.
"This one lady who had been going through treatment, she was almost done with it, she learned that it was my first one and could tell I was nervous and she came to me and said, 'Hey listen, live your life as normal as possible. Don't sit around and poor me this... don't think of all the things you can't do right now, but change your mindset to what you can do,'" he said. "I wish I knew that lady today because I took that to heart and I was like, 'OK you're right. I'm going to look at everything I can do while I'm battling cancer.'"
It took McDowell several years to find his groove again in the triathlon, but he says he finally began to round into shape after re-committing to the sport after nearly quitting in 2018.
“My family was like ‘give it one more go for 2019, then you can walk away if it’s not going to work out,’ and boy am I glad they said that,” he said.
McDowell finally got the call he’d been dreaming of for years, qualifying for the US Olympic team. Now, the 28-year-old will try to do what no American man has done: win a medal in the event, which debuted at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Great Britain has dominated the last two events in London and Rio de Janeiro, with Alistair Brownlee capturing gold in both races and Jonathan Brownlee collecting a bronze and a silver medal in the two events.
In the triathlon, athletes will compete in a 1.5-kilometer (0.93 mile) swim, a 40-kilometer (25 mile) bike ride and a 10-kilometer (6.2 mile) run. The competition will be a single event, meaning that the top three finishers will secure medals.
He will be joined in the men’s competition by Taylor Knibb and Morgan Pearson.
McDowell will also compete in the mixed relay, which is scheduled for July 31. In that event, five athletes will compete for the US, with each athlete performing a triathlon of a 300-meter swim, an eight-kilometer bicycle race and a 2-kilometer run.