As Kevin Simmons humbly stood on the podium at the 2013 USA Triathlon Sprint National Championships, he had no idea what a long journey he had ahead of him or how quickly his health would deteriorate. But he did know one thing: he’d be back racing on that red carpet.
In 2014, longtime triathlete and Lake Mary, Florida, resident Kevin was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 62. It was the first time in recent years that he had to sit out from his favorite race.
“We treated my recovery like a race and there were certain things that needed to be accomplished on a daily basis,” Kevin says. “I learned with my first bout of chemotherapy, we do what we think we can. If I needed to put away dishes or cook after chemo, I did that. If I needed to run two hours, I did that. That’s how I recovered.”
After four-hour chemotherapy sessions at the doctor’s office, Kevin was sent home with a fanny pack and port in his chest to receive treatment for the next 48 hours.
“I remember him on the bike with the fanny pack on; running on the treadmill. There was no day that he said, ‘I am tired, I’m not going to work out,’” recalls his wife Kerry. “Anyone else would call it a life-altering medical condition, but for him it was just a setback. He never lets himself think of the worst-case scenario, and there’s nothing that’s going to stop him.”
If you’ve been to Nationals, you’ve likely witnessed Kevin — a strong, front-of-the-pack triathlete who got his start in multisport in 1982 — racing to a podium finish or cheering on his wife and training partner Kerry. For the last 10 years, he’s competed in almost every USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship race, most recently earning top-five finishes for both the sprint and Olympic-distance events in 2016 — his first championship race back, cancer-free.
With his vision set on the 2017 National Championships, Kevin went in for a routine blood test this past May at what was set to be his last appointment with his oncologist. The test revealed an elevated liver enzyme with further tests showing the cancer had spread to his liver.
“I had a meeting with a skilled liver surgeon here in Florida. At that meeting, the surgeon asked when our National Championships were,” Kevin explains, noting that he wanted to be back racing as soon as possible.
With that in mind, the surgery date was set for May 26 — less than three months before the race.
“The surgery was absolutely brutal, and the recovery was gruesome,” Kevin says, explaining that he had two collapsed lungs and contracted pneumonia in the hospital. He also suffered from a serious complication during the removal of the central venous catheter, which caused an air embolism. “I was lights out, pretty much not breathing. I was revived after four to five minutes.”
After he left the hospital, this nine-time All-American began his recovery with Nationals on his mind. He went from not having strength to go up and down stairs to gradually building energy and progressing to jogging for 30 seconds then walking. He could bike after two weeks, swim after three weeks and did his first triathlon post-surgery on July 15 in Jacksonville, Florida.
On Sunday, Aug. 13, you’ll find Kevin at the Sprint Nationals start line at Levi Carter Park in Omaha, Nebraska, with race age 66 marked on his calf.
“He’s shown me what it means to persevere. It’s been a very long journey for him to get back to health, and I think he’s going to surprise you at Nationals,” Kerry says.
This year is particularly special for Kevin.
“Last year was special because it was my first year back after chemo. This is even more special. I always want to do my best, but I’ve overcome a tremendous bout of adversity. The outcome really is not as significant as going and participating.
“I’m also already thinking about next year and thinking about how I want to go back to Worlds,” says Kevin, who has represented the U.S. at World Championships in England, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. “That passion burns brighter than it did before — it’s just going to take a little longer.”
Want to learn more about the 2017 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in Omaha, Nebraska? Visit usatriathlon.org/agnc17.