Triathlete champ Kevin McDowell tells cancer to take a hike

I was happy enough attending the May 2011 high school graduation ceremony of my firstborn child. But, beyond my pride and joy of watching my pride and joy walk the stage to receive her diploma, I was in for another treat as were all in attendance that day.

Members of the graduating class had voted on who among them should give the graduation speech that day. They chose well. They chose Kevin McDowell.

Kevin had already graduated months earlier. In fact, he had already gone pro – as an athlete. Make that a triathlete.

End of Pan Am Men's Triathlon
Mexico’s Crisanto Grajales breaks the ribbon one just second ahead of Kevin McDowell.

But, in March 2011, Kevin’s doctors discovered a hurdle he’d have to overcome. After his mom noticed a a lump under his clavicle, Kevin went in for an MRI 3 days after his first professional race. Diagnosis? Cancer. Specifically, Hodgkin lymphoma.

On Graduation Day, Kevin had no hair, effects of his chemotherapy. In all, he underwent six months of treatments and lost fifteen pounds. You can imagine what that might do to the body of an elite triathlete.

Kevin wasn’t sure his body would be able to withstand the rigors of a profession in possibly the most grueling of athletic events. On the advice of his mentors, he took a break from training.

But now, he’s back.

Yesterday, Kevin finished one second shy of winning the Gold Medal in the Men’s Triathlon at the Pan American Games in Toronto. A mere triathlon second away from clinching a spot on the U.S.A. Olympic Team.

Smiling winners holding up their medals
The 2015 Men’s Triathlon medal podium. Kevin McDowell of Geneva, Illinois (left), Crisanto Grajales and Irving Perez, both of Mexico. Photo by Rob Schumacher USA Today

And he’s smiling.

Remember the U.S.A. Olympic gymnast who cried on the medal platform because she won the silver instead of the gold? Not Kevin. Silver medal around his neck, he grinned from ear-to-ear. He’s happy. He’s hopeful. He’s confident, not only that he can still become an Olympian but that he will come out of his 5-year check-up cancer-free.

“Ok, so what do I have to do — let’s beat this,” Kevin said as he graduated from cancer patient to, once again, professional triathlete.

The Class of 2011 from Geneva High School know an inspiring leader when they see one.