12:21 PM EDT, September 11, 2011
Lukas Verzbicas made good on his vow.
Within hours of learning his friend, Kevin McDowell, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, Verzbicas decided to extend his triathlon career to bring home the gold medal he was sure McDowell would have won.
Sunday in Beijing, with McDowell there to cheer him on, Verzbicas did exactly that.
In his final triathlon before focusing on a running career at the University of Oregon, the 18-year-old from Sandburg High School took the World Junior Triathlon title in 56 minutes, 21 seconds, beating Justus Meschlag of Germany by 33 seconds. Another U.S. triathlete, Tony Smoragiewicz of Rapid City, S.D., was third in 56:59.
When Verzbicas finished the awards ceremony, he called McDowell to the podium and hung the gold medal around around McDowell's neck.
"It was a very emotional time, all just coming together,'' Verzbicas said via telephone. "It's one of those moments of how sports brings people together. People always say it means a lot more when you are doing it for someone else, and I learned that this time."
McDowell, 19, of Geneva, was the world junior bronze medalist in 2010. He had just made his debut on the pro triathlon circuit in March when doctors found the swelling near his collarbone was Stage 2a Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic tissue.
His last of 12 chemotherapy sessions was Aug. 22. He plans to resume competing soon.
"It's indescribable how much (Verzbicas' promise) helped, how much closer we got through this process, how much meant to me,'' McDowell said. "It helped carry me through this. Today ended it perfect. I have big motivation now."
Verzbicas, of Orland Park, who finished his prep running career in June by becoming the fifth U.S. high schooler to break four minutes in the mile, will begin his college career with cross-country some time this fall.
"I learned today I can convincingly beat the best of the world (in triathlon), and I don't know that in running," he said. "But I can't keep switching. Things I've been able to do at the junior level (in triathlon) won't work at the elite level.
"So I'll run for a few years and see where I am in the world compared to where I am in triathlon. Hopefully in running, I can be just as close."
Verzbicas had finished fourth in the world juniors last year. Sunday, he was with the eight leaders after the 750-meter (.47 mile) swim, when they had a 40-second lead.
"It was the best swim I've ever had," he said.
The top eight stayed together in the 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) bike phase and maintained a 30-second lead.
That left Verzbicas in perfect position for the 5-kilometer (3.1-mile run).
"For the first mile I just relaxed, took it nice and easy and stayed with everyone," he said. "Then I just went for it. The entire race, once I got out with everyone on the swim, it was not much effort at all. On the run, I just kind of enjoyed the moment. It just felt nice."
McDowell goes back to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he began his freshman year before coming home for the final chemo session and then leaving for Beijing.
The gold medal will be with him.
"It's his, always," Verzbicas said.
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