BEIJING -- Lukas Verzbicas won the junior title at the world triathlon championships on Sunday, fulfilling his goal of winning the gold medal in honor of his cancer-stricken friend and teammate.
Verzbicas put his promising running career on hold this summer to return to triathlon in hopes of winning the world title for Kevin McDowell, his friend and teammate who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in March. McDowell finished chemotherapy on Aug. 22 and was at the finish line to cheer as Verzbicas won in 56 minutes, 21 seconds. It was 33 seconds ahead of Germany's Justus Nieschlag and U.S. teammate Tony Smoragiewicz was another 5 seconds back.
"I had him in my mind the whole race," Verzbicas said. "It motivated me more than if I was just doing this by myself."
Verzbicas has been touted as the next great American distance runner, only the fifth U.S. high schooler -- and first in a decade -- to break the 4-minute mile barrier. He'd originally planned to spend this summer getting ready for his freshman season at Oregon, the distance powerhouse that produced Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar and Galen Rupp.
But that changed in March after McDowell was diagnosed with Hodgkin's, a form of blood cancer. The teenagers from suburban Chicago -- Verzbicas is 18, McDowell just turned 19 -- have trained together the past five years.
McDowell's prognosis is good, but his treatment meant he would have to take the season off of racing. McDowell won the bronze medal at last year's worlds and the silver at the Youth Olympics. He would've been a favorite to win the title in Beijing.
So when McDowell had to give up his dream of winning the world title this year, Verzbicas took it and made it his own.
Nieschlag led after the swim and bike segments of the sprint-distance course (half-mile swim, 11-mile bike ride and 3-mile run). But Verzbicas caught him at the start of the run and quickly built an insurmountable lead.
"This couldn't have been a more perfect ending," said McDowell, who served as an assistant coach to Verzbicas and the rest of the U.S. team. "I really believed he could do it and he made it happen."
Verzbicas was equally moved as he took the podium for his gold medal, looking teary-eyed during the playing of the U.S. anthem.
"I did what I set out to do and it's an amazing feeling," Verzbicas said.
Verzbicas said he's ready to go back to running, and he'll head to Oregon when he returns to the United States. But he isn't ruling out a return to triathlon, saying he'll see where his athletic career takes him.