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Cancer Survivor Kevin McDowell Finishes Fourth At U23 Triathlon Worlds, Looks Ahead To Rio Qualifying

By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 17, 2015, 1:18 p.m. (ET)

Kevin McDowell competes in the ITU Under-23 Men World Championships at the 2015 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final on Sept. 17, 2015 in Chicago. 

CHICAGO — Kevin McDowell wanted to add an Under-23 world triathlon title to his growing list of accomplishments.

But the 23-year-old cancer survivor came up just short, finishing fourth.

On a perfect morning in Chicago’s Grant Park, Jacob Birtwhistle from Australia won the race in 1:40:51, with two Spaniards rounding out the podium. David Castro Fajardo was second (1:41:05) and Nan Oliveras third (1:41:15).

McDowell finished 47 seconds off the win (1:41:38).

“I’m definitely disappointed,” he said after the race. “I really wanted a medal, and I really wanted to come in here and win this. But there are only three (who reach the podium), and I did everything I could. I put myself in position right from the start. I have no regrets.”

With a fast 1,500-meter swim in Lake Michigan, McDowell was pleasantly surprised to leave the transition area first on his bike — a situation that he has never experienced. He played it smart on the 40-kilometer bike leg, tucking into the draft in the lead pack and saving himself for the 10-kilometer run.

“The whole race was staying smooth, and I was just really preparing for the run,” he said. “After the first lap or two (of the run), the pace slowed a lot, so I knew it was going to have a kick. I was waiting for it to come because I knew the Spanish were very strong runners. They made the surge, and I just couldn’t respond.”

Despite not winning a medal — to go with the silver medal that he won at the 2015 Pan Am Games in July — McDowell was happy with the race.

“Looking back on the race, I did everything I could,” he said. “There’s not anything I look back and say woulda coulda shoulda. It’s just straight up those guys were better than me today.”

McDowell is also happy with his season. Since undergoing chemotherapy in 2011 for lymphatic cancer, he has not been able to train and compete throughout an entire season. Until 2015. McDowell is currently the top-ranked U.S. male in the WTS standings (31st). And winning the silver medal at Pan Am Games was a highlight.

“It definitely gave me a wave of confidence and belief,” he said. “That’s a big thing that we’ve been working on, the belief. I deserve to belong here and compete with all the guys. So it helped me be able to believe there’s a chance (today).”

McDowell’s friend, Lukas Verzbicas, has not been as fortunate. Once a triathlon wunderkind, Verzbicas was a sub-four-minute miler in high school and won junior world titles in triathlon and duathlon. But after a bad training crash in July 2012, where he broke his thoracic spine (among other injuries), he has struggled to regain his form.

Now 22 years old, Verzbicas finally had his first full season of training and competing in 2015. But progress is slow. He finished 30th in today’s race, 3:35 back.

“Most of the time, I’m just mentally frustrated,” Verzbicas said when asked if he is still experiencing pain. “Pain mentally because I want to be ahead of where I am, knowing how easy it was before. Now that I’ve had a heck of a setback, I have to take my time and work even harder. It’s hard and difficult. But as long as I don’t give up and keep going, I think I’ll get there.”

Once a leading candidate to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, Verzbicas has not given up on that dream.

“I’ll keep training, do some small races and qualify for the Olympic Trials race in March, and see what I can do there,” he said.

Meanwhile, McDowell would like to qualify for the 2016 Games this coming Saturday in the elite men’s ITU World Triathlon Grand Final race. To do so, he must finish in the top eight (and be one of only two Americans in the top eight). His best finish in a WTS race this season is 16th.

But he has no idea how he will perform in two Olympic distance races just two days apart.

“You know, we’ll find out,” he said, while drinking from a bottle of recovery fluid. “I don’t know how my body will respond after this.”

Looking ahead to next year, McDowell has no plans yet, other than going “back to the drawing board and figure out how to improve on today and how to cover those attacks.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. 

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Kevin McDowell