After beating cancer, Geneva’s Kevin McDowell takes sixth in individual triathlon, has eyes on gold in team event at his 1st Olympics
7-time World Cup medalist, national champion competing in solo, relay-style events
By Chris Kudialis
TOKYO – It was hardly the way he pictured it happening, but Kevin McDowell has reached an apex that most athletes in his discipline can only dream of.
McDowell, a star athlete at Geneva High School, never imagined being diagnosed with cancer as an 18-year-old, battling his way back over the course of several years and then having to wait for a pandemic to subside before he could step foot on Olympic ground.
Still, the moment feels as sweet as ever for the 28-year-old, whose impressive resume already includes seven medals at the sport’s World Cup events and an individual national championship. With a unique opportunity in front of him, he has his mind set on more than just showing up and racing.
“It’s very special because this is the first Olympics where there’s a team event for the triathlon in addition to the individual event,” McDowell said during a July 24 interview at Odaiba Marine Park, less than two days before his first competition. “I’d be thrilled to finish in the top 10 or top eight for individual, but for the team event we’re aiming for a gold medal.”
The Geneva native was one of 51 men in the individual triathlon, which includes a 1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike and 10-kilometer run. The race took place at 6:30 a.m. Monday (4:30 p.m. Sunday in Illinois).
Medaling in the solo event would be nothing short of a miracle for McDowell. Instead, he had his sights set on assisting U.S. teammate Morgan Pearson – who’s ranked in the top five – and cracking the top 10 himself.
And indeed McDowell did.
McDowell took sixth place, the highest finish of any American man in Olympic triathlon history.
The greatest joy, McDowell said in the July 24 interview, could come in the relay-style team event July 31 – which features two men and two women from each country completing consecutive “super sprint” triathlons: a 300-meter swim, 6.8-kilometer bike and 2-kilometer run. Team USA will feature McDowell, Pearson and two of the three American women competing in the individual event, who will be selected later this week.
The Americans rank third out of 30 teams set to compete in the team event, according to the official Olympic standings. McDowell said the thought of landing on the medal stand about brings him to tears.
“I’d be speechless and probably start crying,” he said. “To become world champions for the USA, that would be pretty special. I’d almost prefer to win the team title instead of being the individual champion because it’s the debut team relay. And then just the experience, to share it with three teammates and medal would be incredible.”
The reality of being an Olympian hit McDowell as he picked up his luggage at the Tokyo airport last week. Seeing the five rings on his bag next to this year’s official logo and the American flag left goosebumps on his arms. It was a culmination of years of hard work and shortcomings.
When hit with a diagnosis for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2011, running was the last thing on McDowell’s mind. He beat cancer, but still fell short of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
He considered quitting the sport altogether but stuck with it after his family and friends encouraged him to give it one more try back in 2019. Now that his chance finally is here, McDowell said he’s going to leave nothing in the tank.
“For me to consider this a success, I need to be able to say I gave everything I had and everything I could,” McDowell said. “I’m not just here to be an Olympian. I’m here to compete.”