2020 Tokyo Olympics: American Triathlete Kevin McDowell Looks Back on Battling Cancer Years Before Winning Medal at Games

by Emily Morgan

Kevin McDowell’s long and winding road to winning silver at Tokyo Olympics has not been without its battles. While some Olympic athletes prepare with training and practice, the Triathalon athlete first had to overcome cancer. 

In March of 2011, his mother, a nurse, noticed a lump forming on his neck. Just one day after his doctor’s visit, a biopsy showed that McDowell had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“We knew it was really curable, so we at least knew it was a straightforward path,” McDowell, now 28, said in a recent interview with People. “I mean, I was going to have to go through six months of very intense chemotherapy to get through it. And it was a rough battle … but I made it through pretty well and then thought, ‘Oh, I’m done. I beat cancer. Let’s get back to the triathlon thing.’ “

Triathlete Overcomes the Odds at 2020 Olympics

Yet, his diagnosis didn’t keep him from training. He got back to racing in early 2012. However, by 2013 he had to stop again. “My body had just been breaking down so much because I returned too quickly from cancer,” he said. 

While he could only train for one hour a day, he put his energy into finishing school and earning his degree. In 2016, he tried to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio but failed, calling it “a bit of a heartbreak,” even though he admits he wasn’t ready. 

After seriously questioning his athletic career, something changed in 2018. That year, a sudden change occurred for him: “It was crazy, I actually went through a growth spurt. I grew about half an inch, put on much more muscle mass and I kind of finished my growth.”

“All the chemotherapy delayed my growth and everything, and I just kept pushing so hard in triathlon,” he said. “I’d never let my body fully heal and absorb everything.”

He added: “After that, I kind of hit a new spark and I’ve been a new athlete,” he says. “So like I say, I’m 28 now but I feel like a 23-year-old body.”

Finally, in June, McDowell landed a spot for the Tokyo Olympics. He earned his place through a selection process rather than a qualification.

Currently, McDowell has competed twice in the 2020 Games. He placed sixth in the first men’s Triathalon event. Success would follow when he competed with Katie Zaferes, Taylor Knibb, and Morgan Pearson in a two-men/two-women mixed relay on Saturday. 

After years of pushing himself both mentally and physically, McDowell’s work paid off when he won silver. 

Before gearing up for his first race, McDowell read three letters from his parents, sister, and grandparents.

“[It] just kind of brought me back to that little Kevin, with that grit and fire that just wanted to go and race and be here,” he said. “They reminded me when I was so sick and visualizing one day to be back out here and watching the Olympic Games — I want[ed] to be on that one day. And so now I’m like, ‘I get this opportunity. Let’s make the most of it and have fun.’ “

“It’s been quite a whirlwind,” he admitted. “But I’m glad I never gave up.”