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The 23-year-old will line up for the second time this week in Chicago, and will be the only male athlete to do so.
Three days after his first pro race in 2011, 23-year-old Kevin McDowell was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His future in triathlon went from bright—he was third at the Junior World Championships in 2010—to unknown as he turned his focus from battling competitors to battling cancer during his last year of high school.
After six months and 12 treatments, he fought it and came out on top. Four years later, he has cautiously made his way back into the sport with the help of coaches Jono Hall and Bobby McGee, and 2015 was his first full season on the ITU circuit.
“When I got back [from fighting cancer], I had learned a lot from it and it helped not to take things for granted,” McDowell says. “There were a couple years where I wondered, ‘Will I actually come back?’ I kept pushing, and my body would give out, and I didn’t allow my body to truly recover. It was kind of a big struggle in 2012-2013—I kept coming back and then I would break. I took five whole months off the sport and focused on school and by the end of it, I was ready to come back. Jono and Bobby were always making sure I was ready.”
As of publishing time, he’s the top American in the World Triahtlon Series rankings and just placed fourth at the U23 Grand Final in Chicago on Thursday. He will be the only male who is also racing the elite men’s race today at 5 p.m. “There’s no pressure on the elite race because I was focused on the U23, so I can just go to and maybe earn some bonus points, but if not, it’s another experience to learn,” he says.
“This has been my first year doing a full season, and that was the whole focus for the year. I feel better than I felt pre-cancer, and I feel like there’s more coming. It’s been a patience game, I’ve learned. I’m truly happy where I’m at right now and I’ve got the right systems in place. We still have room to improve and things to work on, so it should be fun in the next couple years.”
Although patience is a strong suit of McDowell’s, he’s also driven to make the U.S. Olympic team for Rio 2016. Given his place in the rankings and solid results this year, it’s not a far-fetched goal to get there.
“One thing that I’ve been working on with Jono and Bobby is believing I can do this, and that I belong with all the other guys here,” McDowell says. “I’ve just started to believe that I have a shot at this too. 2020 is where I really want to come out, but we’re not going to force something to break me, we’re going to work long-term, so it’s all about building the blocks and not just throwing everything at me. If I don’t make 2016, OK, let’s keep building. I’m just enjoying the process and I love it, so that’s just a motivation to get there.”