Verzbicas won the junior title at the world triathlon championships Sunday, fulfilling his vow to win for his cancer-stricken friend and teammate Kevin McDowell. With a good prognosis after his final chemotherapy treatment Aug. 22, McDowell was at the finish line to cheer as Verzbicas won in 56 minutes 21 seconds.
"I had him in my mind the whole race. I knew I was doing it for him," Verzbicas said. "It motivated me more than if I was just doing this by myself."
Verzbicas finished 33 seconds ahead of Germany's Justus Nieschlag, the European junior champion. American Tony Smoragiewicz won the bronze medal, finishing just five seconds behind Nieschlag.
"This couldn't have been a more perfect ending," said McDowell, who served as an assistant coach to Verzbicas and the U.S. team. "I really believed he could do it and he made it happen."
Verzbicas has been touted as the next great American distance runner, only the fifth U.S. high schooler — and first in a decade — to break the four-minute mile barrier. He'd originally planned to spend this summer getting ready for his freshman season at Oregon, but that changed in March after McDowell was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of blood cancer.
The teenagers — Verzbicas is 18, McDowell just turned 19 — have trained together the past five years with the Multisport Madness Triathlon Team, a club team in suburban Chicago. Gifted on their own, they became even better because they pushed each other to improve. Verzbicas was the junior U.S. triathlon champ in 2008, McDowell in 2009. They finished third and fourth at last year's junior worlds, McDowell completing the sprint-distance course in 52 minutes, 22 seconds. Verzbicas was 14 seconds behind after being assessed a 15-second penalty.
"You can't have a bad day, really, unless you're both having a bad day," Verzbicas said this summer.
So when cancer forced McDowell to give up his dream of winning the world title this year, Verzbicas took it and made it his own.
"Last tri tomorrow. It's been an amazing journey, thanks for everyone's support this one's for you @KMcDowell1," Verzbicas said Saturday on Twitter.
In Beijing, Nieschlag led after the swim and bike segments of the sprint-distance course (one-kilometre swim, 18-kilometre bike ride and five-kilometre run). But Verzbicas caught him at the start of the run, and quickly built an insurmountable lead.
Verzbicas was emotional as he took the podium for his gold medal, looking teary-eyed as the U.S. anthem played.
"I did what I set out to do and it's an amazing feeling," Verzbicas said.
Verzbicas said he's ready to go back to running, and he'll head to Oregon when he returns to the United States. But he isn't ruling out a return to triathlon, saying he'll see where his athletic career takes him.