TORONTO -- Kevin McDowell got outkicked in the last 100 meters of Sunday's Pan American Games triathlon. The gold medal and a chance to clinch an Olympic slot, not for himself but for the U.S. men's team, slipped away by a single second to Mexico's Crisanto Grajales, who passed under the finish arch on the north shore of Lake Ontario with a time of 1:48:58.
That hurt, but McDowell shook off the sting and beamed down at his silver medal. His pain threshold is higher than most, even in his grueling sport.
McDowell, 22, was a junior phenom on a steep upward trajectory four years ago. In March 2011, three days after his first pro race, the results of an MRI on a lump in his neck put a boulder in his path. The diagnosis was Hodgkin lymphoma, and McDowell underwent six months of chemotherapy. He stayed active in the early going, but by the end, he'd lost 15 pounds from an already spare 154-pound frame. He had to stop watching movies and TV shows on Netflix because any outside stimuli made him nauseous.
But chemo was a regimen McDowell could cross off week by week on the calendar, something easy to digest for an elite athlete. "It was, 'OK, so what do I have to do -- let's beat this,'" he said.
An unexpectedly tough stretch lay ahead, like the run leg of a triathlon when the temperature is rising. McDowell was still a teenager and understandably impatient. "I didn't give myself credit for what I'd been through, and I started pushing too fast," he said. His body balked. He told his support posse, Andy Schmitz and Bobby McGee of USA Triathlon's high performance department, and personal coach Jonathan Hall that he wasn't sure he could continue competing.
Something else was sapping him emotionally -- survivor's guilt. McDowell had his outpatient treatments at a hospital near his Geneva, Illinois, home, and he was moved and devastated by the children he met. "There was some 'Why me?' So many of these kids didn't make it," McDowell said.
McDowell's coaches persuaded him to take a break, and he stepped away from the sport for five months. He took college courses and slowly rebuilt his strength. All of his scans have been clean and he's confident he'll be declared cancer-free at his milestone five-year examination early next year. He re-announced himself on the competitive front by winning gold at the last year's World University Triathlon Championships and has a pair of top-three finishes in World Cup events in the last two seasons.
On Sunday, McDowell was among the last contenders to emerge from the 1,500-meter swim, and he said he owed a huge thanks to U.S. teammate Eric Lagerstrom, who brought him up to the main pack on the bike. McDowell sat comfortably in the chase group for most of the 6-mile run and made his move with the other eventual medalists with about a mile to go.
McDowell's runner-up finish comes 16 years after Hunter Kemper won a Pan Am silver medal in Winnipeg at the front end of a long international career that includes four Olympic appearances. Kemper, 39, who is bidding for a fifth, finished eighth, 39 seconds behind Grajales. Lagerstrom, racing on his 26th birthday, finished 17th.
The result sets McDowell up well for two significant races: an Olympic qualification event next month in Rio de Janeiro, where a top-8 finish could book a trip to Rio 2016, and the International Triathlon Union world championship in Chicago in September.
McDowell is looking forward to competing on what amounts to a home course, and it also gives him an opportunity to honor kids battling cancer who are trying to jog in his footsteps. He hopes to bring a group from the wish-granting organization Cal's Angels as VIPs.