Lukas Verzbicas Competes With Kevin McDowell In Mind

Lukas Verzbicas to compete in the Junior World Championships in honor of his good friend, elite triathlete Kevin McDowell, who is battling Hodgkin's lymphoma.

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Lukas Verzbicas to compete in the Junior World Championships in honor of his good friend, elite triathlete Kevin McDowell, who is battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Lukas Verzbicas sat in silence, trying to absorb the news that Kevin McDowell, his friend and longtime triathlon teammate, had been diagnosed with cancer.

Finally, Verzbicas’ stepfather spoke. Lukas had a choice to make. He could continue to focus on the running career that has shown such promise he was being hailed as the next great American distance runner even before he broke the 4-minute mile, something only four other U.S. high schoolers have ever done.

Or he could put his own dreams and plans on hold for those of his friend, returning to triathlon for one last summer in hopes of claiming the junior world title that Kevin would have been favored to win.

“I made the decision right away,” Verzbicas said. “I feel like Kevin would have definitely won that medal, and it’s really not fair what happened. If I could bring it to him, I have to do it.”

Triathlon is McDowell’s passion, has been since he took up the sport seven years ago. The bronze medalist at last year’s junior world championships, he graduated high school early so he could train full-time. At an International Triathlon Union sprint event in Clermont, Fla., in March, he finished 10th, the fourth-fastest American.

He was a decade younger than many of the other top racers.

“I was on a high, excited about how the race went,” said McDowell, who turns 19 on Aug. 1.

When he returned home, however, his mother noticed a lump on his neck. McDowell didn’t think much of it, just as he hadn’t thought much about how tired he’d been lately, how drained he’d been after training. He had felt great during the race, and figured any fatigue was simply due to the intense workouts he’d been doing to get ready for the season.

But his mother, a nurse, told him to go have it checked out. Doctors said it was nothing, a torn muscle, perhaps. Just in case, though, they did an ultrasound and told McDowell to get an MRI.

The next day, the teenager learned he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. That lump in his neck was a tumor, and he had another in his chest.

The cancer was caught early, Stage 2, and his prognosis was — and is — good. But McDowell would need five months of chemotherapy. His season, barely started, was over. So, too, his dream of winning the junior title at the world championships, Sept. 10-11 in Beijing.

While the news stunned all of McDowell’s teammates, Verzbicas took it particularly hard. He and McDowell have trained side-by-side the past five years, one driving the other every bit as hard as he drove himself. As naturally gifted as they are — McDowell is the stronger swimmer, Verzbicas the better runner of course and they’re about even on the bike — it’s taken the other to make each the athlete he is.

Read more: The Associated Press