One of the top Junior Male Elite competitors was visibly absent from last Saturday’s USA Triathlon 2011 Junior and Youth Nationals at Chula Vista Harbor. Kevin McDowell of Geneva, Ill., entered the 2011 season as the nation’s top-ranked junior triathlete and was the favorite to win September’s International Triathlon Union world championship in Beijing.
But in March, McDowell was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that strikes people in their physical prime between 15 and 40.
Teammate Lukas Verzbicas, the 2010 Footlocker National cross country champion, was crushed by the news.
The two had been more than just teammates — they were friends and rivals, something that translates only between the two individuals involved.
They finished third and fourth at the 2010 world championships.
Verzbicas, the nation’s top prep track recruit out of Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Hills, Ill.,will continue his running career at the University of Oregon, with a goal of one day competing in the Olympic Games in track.
But before he starts classes, Verzbicas has some unfinished business to attend to. He has pledged to win the 2011 world championship title for McDowell.
The 2010 worlds were supposed to be Verzbicas’ farewell to triathlon competition but he has pushed that back one summer after the devastating news this spring.
September’s worlds in China will be his last triathlon competition until he completes his collegiate track career. He said in a post-race interview that he owes that much to himself.
“I probably have more potential in the triathlon world but I don’t want to be in a position of looking back to see what could have been in college,” he said.
He also owes one last race for McDowell.
Verzbicas can think of nothing more courageous — and humbling — than to hand McDowell the gold medal he was supposed to win.
And it just might happen.
Verzbicas used a strong finish in the 5K portion of last Saturday’s triathlon to overtake last year’s champion, Ben Kanute of Geneva, Ill., to claim a 1-minute, 15-second victory.
Kanute was a two-time Junior Elite national champion.
Verzbicas was obviously running for two people.
“It’s a good send-off,” he said, letting out a sigh while wiping his brow, obviously deep in thought.
More than 400 triathletes, ages 7 to 19, competed in last weekend’s national championship event, including a relay championship on Sunday. Spectators numbered many times over that figure, turning the southernmost part of Chula Vista Harbor into a teeming mini-city for the day.
Kelly Whitley of Geneva, Ill., captured the Junior Female title by completing the course in 1:02.01. Top-ranked in the nation, Whitley recorded a 1:56 winning margin over runner-up Breanna Hemming of Kiowa, Colo.
Whitley finished fourth in last year’s world championship and is looking to step onto the medal stand this year. “It was a very competitive field,” Whitley said of the strong field of challengers assembled in Chula Vista.
Elite Junior athletes (ages 16-19) competed in a 750-meter open water swim in the harbor, a 20K bike and a 5K run. Elite Youth runners (ages 13-15) competed in a 375-meter swim, 10K bike and 2.5K run.
The youngest age group competitors swam 100 meters, biked 5K and closed with a 1K run.
Tamara Gorman of Rapid City, S.D., repeated as the Youth Elite female champion with a time of 31:50.
Sawyer Willingham of Simpsonville, S.C., captured the Youth Elite male title in 30:29.
Age group champions included Justin Lorenz of Dundee, Ill. (7-10 boys, 17:14), Chloe Waldner of Fresno (7-10 girls, 17:59), Mario Agustin Pena P(11-15 boys, 28:13) and Jennifer Jenks of Aurora, Iowa (11-15 girls, 29:36).
Steve Kelley, USA Triathlon’s athlete development coordinator, described the Youth Elite races as possessing “really consistent performances.”
“People like Sawyer and Tamara really came in as the favorites and they defended that position,” he said. “In both junior elite races we saw the depth of the fields with large packs and very aggressive riding. That transfers to good racing throughout the field, not just in the top 10.”
About half of the entry field was comprised of California residents. Locals were represented by the Triathlon Club of San Diego.
For complete results, visit the Web site at www.usatriathlon.org.