Tokyo Olympics

Olympian Kevin McDowell Says This Moment Kept Him From Giving Up After Cancer Battle

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Kevin McDowell's cancer diagnosis came at a pivotal moment in the Geneva triathlete's career.

He had been competing in the sport since a young age and was already seeing success as he prepared to finish out high school.

"I had my eyes set on the Junior World title of my last year in that category and early on that spring I actually was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma," he said. "So then, 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."

At first, the uncertainty took over.

"I actually didn't know what my outcome would be, if I had like, if this was going to be terminal, if this or major complications," he said.

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.'"

Fast forward through six months of chemotherapy and McDowell's body had "started to take more of a beating," but he had finished one of the most challenging times of his life. He had beaten cancer.

Still, as McDowell shifted his sights back to his dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete, his biggest struggle was still to come.

"I pushed back pretty hard coming back and actually hadn't let my body recover probably as much as I should have and I was definitely pushing boundaries that my doctors even told me where I would be at post-cancer," he said. "So it was quite a roller coaster effect where I would have some good results and tough results and then everything in between with some very big highs and very big lows. There were a couple of occasions where actually I thought I would have to walk away from the sport because my body was just breaking down."

The treatment had drastically altered McDowell's body and he hadn't given it time to catch up.

There were two occasions where McDowell said he nearly threw in the towel. Most recently, was in 2018.

"I was just having these rough goes and races. I was training well, then I became anemic as well," he said.

His family convinced him to give it one more shot in 2019.

"My family and them were 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."

The next year, McDowell said "things started to click."

"I started to figure out what works for me and like I just had to accept that - I came to terms actually with what I'd gone through," he said. "Because I think a big thing was like, I never really allowed myself to grieve like what I went through. I was very fortunate to actually get through cancer how I did so actually at some point it's kind of like, 'Why should I be sad at all? Because I could have died, like I could have lost my life and a lot of people do lose their lives to cancer.' So I almost had that survivor's guilt. So I didn't let myself even have sympathy for like, the sadness of what I had to go through my senior year of high school and my last year as a junior racing."

Now, with the help of a stranger, the support of a community, his personal drive to succeed and one final family push keeping him from giving it all up, McDowell has achieved his dream of becoming an Olympian.

"To be named to the team, when they gave me that call, I was... definitely had tears coming down, because I mean it's been a childhood dream and it has not been an easy journey to get here," he said.

Now, as McDowell prepares for yet another major life moment, he'll be doing it without his biggest supporters by his side. But as he always has, McDowell is choosing to focus on the upside.

"It's a bummer that my family and friends and people won't be able to make the trip over, but at the end of the day I still made the Olympic team. I'm going to compete," he said. "The competition is ultimately what we're after there - trying to go after some medals."

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