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Local triathlete makes history at Olympics

Posted: July 28 2021 at 11:01 AM
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First-time U.S. Olympian Kevin McDowell comes sixth place in the men's individual triathlon on July 26 in Tokyo, earning the highest-ever finish by a U.S. man at the Olympic Games. Photo credit: World Triathlon

Update 7/31/21: In a thrilling race, Kevin McDowell and his teammates for the USA earned the silver medal in Tokyo at the inaugural Triathlon Mixed Relay at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Read more.

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First-time U.S. Olympian Kevin McDowell is a hometown champion after making history at the Summer Olympics coming in sixth place in the men's individual triathlon on July 26 in Tokyo, earning the highest-ever finish by a U.S. man at the Olympic Games.

McDowell, 29, is from Geneva, Ill., and started attending Flowing Forth UMC in Aurora (formerly Flowing Grace UMC) when he was in high school, said his former pastor and Prairie Central District Superintendent Rev. Jeffry Bross.

"He came on his own to church as a high school kid and at the time was the number one rated triathlete in the world," said Bross. "He was faithful and went around telling his story about faith and God's work in his life.  His family followed him and started coming to church, so he evangelized." 

The McDowell family later moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado where Kevin attended college and currently trains, but Bross says Kevin often visits when he's back home.

Road to Olympics


A cancer diagnosis ten years ago nearly sidelined the triathlete, who had won numerous medals and was named USA Triathlon Junior Athlete of the Year in 2009 and 2010. 

"I remember asking the doctors 'am I going to live and what's the prognosis?'" McDowell shared in a video feature of Tokyo Athletes. "When I learned it was Hodgkin's lymphoma, we had a little celebration because it's one of the most curable cancers." 

Despite the difficult chemotherapy treatments that were taking a toll on his body, McDowell fought back and continued to train with support from his family, church connections, and a cancer charity called Cal's Angels, which grants wishes, raises awareness, and funds research to help kids fighting cancer.  

He returned to elite competition, making his senior-level World Cup debut. He would go on to win gold at the 2014 FISU World University Triathlon Championships, and silver at the Pan American Games Toronto 2015, according to his USA Triathlon bio. McDowell is now a seven-time World Triathlon Cup medalist and recently celebrated 10 years cancer-free.

His Olympic dream that he's had since age 11 finally came true when he was selected by USA Triathlon to compete in this summer's games.

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McDowell exited the swim in 47th place, fifth from the back, but used a strong bike to ride his way into contention. Photo credit: World Triathlon

"I wanted to race like that little Kevin who has always had this fire and grit," McDowell said. "I wanted to race with no regrets and just be proud out there. Everyone has been saying how proud they were, so I was thinking, 'Let me give back to what everyone has given to me through this journey.' I just want to go and put on a show and make everyone proud. I went out and gave it all I had.”

The race was exciting to watch. McDowell exited the swim in 47th place, fifth from the back, but used a strong bike to ride his way into contention. He clocked a time of 1 hour, 45 minutes, 54 seconds. His sixth-place finish is one better than four-time U.S. Olympian Hunter Kemper's seventh-place showing at the Beijing 2008 Games, according to USA Triathlon.

After his race he gave credit to all those who’ve supported him along the journey. "The support system around me has been incredible," McDowell said. "I got an overwhelming amount of messages and letters sent from home. I read my last three from both my parents, my sister and my grandparents. It meant the world to me to read those last ones and remember where I came from. Ten years ago, I was so sick. I didn't know what would happen, but I was so passionate about this sport. To be up here being in contention at the Olympic Games, I'm living the dream right now.”

Bross cheered on McDowell wearing a t-shirt with “Team Kevin - Tokyo 2020” on the front while watching the livestream on his TV and couldn’t be more proud of his former congregant. 

"He's a cancer survivor but more than that he's a believer," said Bross. "He's an amazing young man. He overcame cancer and made his dream a reality. He is humble, faithful and inspiring. We are so proud of you!”

The Triathlon Mixed Relay, a first-time medal event at the Olympic Games, on Friday, July 30, at 6:30 p.m. ET. The final four-person mixed relay team (two men, two women) will not be determined until race morning but will come from among those athletes competing in the individual events.

*USA Triathlon contributed to this article.

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