COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- There have been days when Kevin McDowell couldn't finish a swimming workout at the U.S. Olympic Training Center pool in the designated time. And other days, like this one in late September, when McDowell was last to finish of the athletes in USA Triathlon's new elite academy.
"Today actually was the first day I actually felt a little more like myself," McDowell said. "I wasn't going fast, but I had some rhythm in the water instead of going through the motions."
But there are moments of frustration for the two-time U.S. junior triathlon champion and 2010 world junior bronze medalist. His best friend and academy training partner, Kelly Whitley, knows McDowell tries not to show it yet she can see how badly he wants to be faster and stronger.
He wants to be the triathlete he was before the 12 sessions of chemotherapy that followed a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic tissue, only two days after an eye-popping success in his debut on the professional circuit last March.
"It's scary to think about how good he would be now if that hadn't happened," said Whitley, 2011 U.S. junior champion.
"But he is so determined I know he can be even better. Kevin is probably the most positive person and inspirational athlete I ever have met."
McDowell moved Aug. 12 from his home in Geneva to Colorado Springs. Ten days later, he had his final chemotherapy session.
Each bi-weekly session had weakened him progressively, leaving him to spend the next two days in bed without any appetite, which eventually took 15 pounds from his normally 154-pound body.
At the beginning of the next week, he would return to training. Just as he started to feel significantly better, it was time for more chemo.
"Once I got done with chemo, I had a new life," he said.
"Each day, I'm happy to be able to train and not be thinking, 'You're going to be OK for a week and then be sick again."'
The 19-year-old McDowell recently got results of scans that he said were 100 percent cancer-free. That allows him to have the port used for the chemotherapy removed from his chest later this month. He then will undergo scans about every four months for about five years.
"Mentally, the big moment will be when I get the port taken out," he said.
Then he will go out and buy new running shoes and a new practice suit for swimming.
"It will be my restart," he said.
In a sense, McDowell began anew when he left for Colorado Springs to join the elite academy and begin his freshman year at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, which has given him and Whitley full scholarships.
The transition also included a comforting sense of the old.
Keith Dickson, founder of the west suburban Multisport Madness Club that developed Geneva High School grads McDowell and Whitley, also is team director of the elite academy. Their longtime coach, Romas Bertulis, moved with his family from Palos Heights this summer to become the academy's head coach. His wife, Rasa, cooks dinner for the triathletes.
Rasa Verzbickiene is the mother and Bertulis the stepfather of running phenom Lukas Verzbicas, the Tribune prep athlete of the year, who extended his triathlon career by several months when he learned McDowell had cancer. Verzbicas pledged to bring home the 2011 world junior title he was sure McDowell would have won.
That is exactly what happened last month in Beijing.
After winning the gold medal and giving it to McDowell, Verzbicas began his freshman year at the University of Oregon, where he will be a runner.
USA Triathlon paid for McDowell to go to Beijing. It was both a thrilling and torturous experience for McDowell, whose first question after the cancer diagnosis had been whether he would be able to compete at worlds.
"When I was there, I tried to have the mindset of not thinking too much that I couldn't race, but it was hard," McDowell said.
The plan is for McDowell's first race to be the national collegiate championships next April. His long-term goal remains the 2016 or 2020 Olympics.
"Physically, he needs time, but mentally, he is very strong, very focused," Bertulis said.
McDowell's oncologist, Chris George, advised him to take just six hours of classes this semester. He convinced George to let it be nine hours.
In September, he walked briskly up the Manitou Springs Incline, a legendary local climb with an average grade of 41 percent as it gains 2,000 feet (to 8,550) in a mile.
"I was panting pretty hard, but I didn't stop," he said.
Bertulis recalled how McDowell was the only one not crying after he told the Multisports team about the cancer. That mental strength occasionally flagged but never disappeared.
"I broke down at different times," McDowell said. "There were little things that made me feel I wasn't normal."
One occurred after he cut his hand horsing around at August's U.S. Championships in California, the day before he was to compete in a team relay. McDowell knew swimming with a cut brought a risk of infection because chemotherapy had suppressed his immune system.
But he competed anyway and returned home with pus in the cuts. That brought a stern lecture about knowing limits from his mother, Traci, a registered nurse.
"I don't think about what I would be doing or where I would be if this hadn't happened," McDowell said. "Right now, I'm just trying to take baby steps, and mentally that is the hardest thing. I'm going to have to recognize I'm not going to get my fitness back to where it was in February for a while."
In February, McDowell had immersed himself in recordings he made of Bud Greenspan's Olympic films, which Universal Sports presented in a memorial retrospective after Greenspan's death last December. Every movie had at least one section about an athlete's triumph over adversity.
"That was one of the first things I thought back to after finding out about the cancer," McDowell said. "They made it through all those things, so why can't I? It was like, every athlete has a story, so this one will be mine."