TOKYO — Kevin McDowell of Geneva, Ill., made history again Saturday, winning a silver medal in the Olympic debut of the triathlon mixed relay.
McDowell, 28, jumped in the air and pumped his fists as teammate Morgan Pearson crossed the finish line behind Britain’s Alex Yee.
The result comes fives days after McDowell finished sixth in the men’s individual event, the best-ever finish by a U.S. male triathlete at the Olympics.
Teammate Katie Zaferes, who won bronze in the women’s event Tuesday, opened the race for the Americans. She handed off to McDowell, followed by teammates Taylor Knibb and Morgan Pearson.
A fast-paced and strategic event, the relay rewards athletes with fast transitions and strong technical skills as participants swim, bike and run on a shortened course.
“Sometimes in the individual race,” McDowell said, “there are longer stretches of time where not much action is happening — but the mixed relay is so short and dynamic, there are always things happening and things that you’ll miss if you aren’t paying attention.”
USA Triathlon officials picked McDowell, who was part of a U.S. team that won bronze at the 2018 world championships, for the Tokyo Games largely because of his experience with relays. He also won a bronze medal in the mixed relay when it debuted at the youth Olympics in 2010.
“I have the experience and I also get along really well with all the people on the team,” he told the Chicago Tribune before he arrived in Tokyo. “I think that has a lot to do with why I was picked.”
Neither Bermuda’s Flora Duffy or Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway, gold medalists in the women’s and men’s individual events, competed in the race as their nations did not qualify enough athletes to form a team. South Africa also withdrew from the race after one of its members injured his foot in the individual event.
Before the Games began, many predicted the United States would medal in the relay based largely on the strength of its women. After McDowell’s surprise finish in the individual event, it seemed even more likely.
An alternate for the 2016 Summer Games, McDowell made his Olympic debut Monday at Odaiba Marine Park, a coastal tourist attraction with views of Tokyo’s iconic Rainbow Bridge. Having never finished higher than 11th in a World Triathlon Championship Series, he decided he would “be over the moon” if he finished in the top eight.
He came out of the water in 47th place, so far back that he said he wondered if the race had already ended for him. He caught up on the bike portion, then led at parts of the 10K run before eventually being overtaken by Blummenfelt.
McDowell finished sixth with a time of 1hour, 45 minutes, 54 seconds, the best showing for an American male since the sport’s debut in 2000. The previous best was seventh, achieved by Hunter Kemper.
It was a dream finish for McDowell, whose triathlon career was disrupted in 2011 by cancer. At 18, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a highly treatable cancer that ravaged his body.
He returned to racing in spring 2012, but the competition began a frustrating cycle of improvement followed by regression. It would be years of trial and error before he found a conditioning and nutrition routine that worked for him.