Four-time Olympian Hunter Kemper and defending Pan American Games gold medalist Sarah Haskins lead the U.S. triathletes into this summer’s Pan Am Games, an event that will also be another milestone in the inspiring comeback run of a resurgent Kevin McDowell.
Winners in each of the men’s and women’s races will earn a quota spot for their country at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. The triathlon competition uses the standard Olympic distance of a 1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike and 10-kilometer run.
The Americans have been among the strongest teams in triathlon, with five gold medals since the sport made its Pan Am Games debut in 1995. The Americans won the women’s and men’s gold medals in 2007 in Brazil. The women have been among the strongest teams in the world in the triathlon this year, and Haskins, a 2008 Olympian, expects that won’t change in Canada.
“I think we have a really good shot at some medals, and that’s the goal,” she said.
Joining Kemper and McDowell on the men’s triathlon team will be Eric Lagerstrom. McDowell and Lagerstrom are competing in their first Pan Am Games.
The 39-year-old Kemper is competing in his third Pan Am Games, having won gold in 2003 and silver in 1999. The four-time U.S. Olympian made the 2011 Pan Am Games roster but didn’t compete because of an injury.
On the women’s team, Haskins won Pan Am gold in 2011 in Mexico after winning silver in 2007 in Brazil, and her extensive international experience will likely help the other two American women, Chelsea Burns of Seattle and Erin Jones of Hood River, Oregon, who are making their Pan Am Games debuts.
McDowell may have one of the most inspiring stories in this year’s Pan Am Games. The Geneva, Illinois, native has battled back into race shape after undergoing chemotherapy in 2011 to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma that was diagnosed just days after his professional debut. After taking most of 2013 off from serious racing and training, McDowell is back at the top of the sport, having finished third, one spot and a few seconds ahead of Kemper, in the Chengdu ITU Triathlon World Cup in China in May, and posting two other top-10 finishes in ITU World Cup events this season.
McDowell said sitting out much of 2013 was mentally hard and has fueled the desire that’s propelled him back into the cadre of elite racers.
“That time off made me realize this is what I want to do,” said McDowell.
McDowell said he wants to use the Pan Am Games as a possible stepping stone toward future events such as the Olympic Games, while also learning from more experienced teammates like Kemper. But his fight back after cancer has him savoring each event for its own sake.
“I’m definitely taking it one step at a time,” McDowell said.
Haskins has had a strong 2015 so far, winning the Continental Cup in Florida and making her Ironman 70.3 debut in Puerto Rico, where she won by more than seven minutes. But the Pan Am Games will be different from what she’s used to because of the country quota spots on the line for Rio.
“You still go in with the same intensity, you have an important job to do,” Haskins said. “In some ways it’s more nerve-racking because it’s not just you, you’re responsible for helping other athletes. In some ways, it’s a little bit more pressure.”
The women compete on Saturday, July 11, and the men on Sunday, July 12.
Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.