Lukas Verzbicas sat in silence, trying to absorb the news that Kevin McDowell, his friend and longtime triathlon teammate, had been diagnosed with cancer.
Finally, Verzbicas' stepfather spoke. Lukas had a choice to make. The Aurora athlete could continue to focus on the running career that has shown such promise he was being hailed as the next great American distance runner even before he broke the 4-minute mile, something only four other U.S. high schoolers have ever done.
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Or he could put his own dreams and plans on hold for those of his friend, returning to triathlon for one last summer in hopes of claiming the junior world title that Kevin would have been favored to win.
"I made the decision right away," Verzbicas said. "I feel like Kevin would have definitely won that medal, and it's really not fair what happened. If I could bring it to him, I have to do it."
Triathlon is McDowell's passion, has been since he took up the sport seven years ago. A bronze medalist at last year's junior world championships, he graduated Geneva High early so he could train full-time. At an International Triathlon Union sprint event in Clermont, Fla., in March, he finished 10th, the fourth-fastest American.
He was a decade younger than many of the other top racers.
"I was on a high, excited about how the race went," said McDowell, who turns 19 on Aug. 1.
When he returned home, however, his mother noticed a lump on his neck. McDowell didn't think much of it, just as he hadn't thought much about how tired he'd been lately, how drained he'd been after training. He had felt great during the race, and figured any fatigue was simply due to the intense workouts he'd been doing to get ready for the season.
But his mother, a nurse, told him to go have it checked out. Doctors said it was nothing, a torn muscle, perhaps. Just in case, though, they did an ultrasound and told McDowell to get an MRI.
The next day, the teenager learned he had Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. That lump in his neck was a tumor, and he had another in his chest.
The cancer was caught early, Stage 2, and his prognosis was -- and is -- good. But McDowell would need five months of chemotherapy. His season, barely started, was over. So, too, his dream of winning the junior title at the world championships, Sept. 10-11 in Beijing.
"It's just a little bump in the road," McDowell said. "At times it doesn't feel like a bump right now, sometimes it feels like going up a mountain. But in the end, I'll be able to look back and say, 'All right, this was just a little bump.'"
After getting the news, McDowell went up to his bedroom, wanting to be alone. But the enormity of what he was facing -- and what he was losing -- overwhelmed him, and he knew of only one place where he would find comfort.
"He got the news at 1. At 5 o'clock, he shows up for practice," said Keith Dickson, director of the Multisport Madness Triathlon Team, McDowell and Verzbicas' club team. "He told his team, 'Guys, I've got cancer. So let's go run.' So he goes and leads his team on a 5-mile run. Nobody was saying anything, they're just running behind Kevin."
While the news stunned all of McDowell's teammates, Verzbicas took it particularly hard. He and McDowell have trained side-by-side the past five years, one driving the other every bit as hard as he drove himself. As naturally gifted as they are -- McDowell is the stronger swimmer, Verzbicas the better runner of course and they're about even on the bike -- it's taken the other to make each the athlete he is.
"You can't have a bad day, really, unless you're both having a bad day," Verzbicas said.
The two have swapped places atop the podium since the very first time they raced. (Verzbicas won that time, though he admits he later discovered that he'd skipped a full loop on the course.) Verzbicas was the junior U.S. triathlon champ in 2008, McDowell in 2009. They finished 3-4 at last year's junior worlds, McDowell completing the sprint-distance course (a 750-meter swim, 19.03-kilometer bike ride and 5-kilometer run) in 52 minutes, 22 seconds, with Verzbicas a mere 14 seconds after being assessed a 15-second penalty.
But when asked if the two are rivals, Verzbicas recoils. Theirs is an individual sport, and each wants to win. But they take their role as teammates seriously, giving each other encouragement and counsel.
It's a complex concept, this idea of friendly foes, one that's hard to fully appreciate for anyone who hasn't watched the teens push and pull each other along.
"I never thought of it as a rivalry," Verzbicas said. "A lot of people think that. I really don't feel like it's that way. I think we're more teammates. ... Team brothers."
That's what made Verzbicas' choice so easy.
The 18-year-old had given up triathlon last October to concentrate on distance running, and already has an impressive collection of records. He won his second straight title at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in December, only the third boy to win consecutive races in the event's 32-year history. He single-handedly won the team title at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in March, winning the mile, two mile and 5,000 meters.
On June 4, he shattered the high school two-mile record by almost five seconds at the Prefontaine Classic. A week later, he ran the mile in 3:59.71 at the Adidas Grand Prix, only the fifth U.S. high schooler -- and first in a decade -- to break the 4-minute barrier. He has a scholarship to Oregon, a powerhouse in collegiate running.
But McDowell needed Verzbicas, now more than he ever has.
"When he said what he was going to do, I was like, 'Wow.' It's a really nice gesture," McDowell said, his face conveying the awe and gratitude that words can't adequately describe. "To come back, it's a harder path and it's not what he had planned. It meant a lot. ... Now, in a way, I can still be a part of it and be a part of this whole process. So it helped a lot. It's something to look forward to, in a different way."
McDowell has chemotherapy every other Monday, and is often accompanied by one of his teammates. The two-hour treatments sap his energy for the next three or four days, but by Friday or Saturday he is back at practice, trying to push Verzbicas as he always has.
The workouts make him feel better physically and will make his return to competition easier. But it's the camaraderie with his teammates that helps most, allowing him to feel as if his "old" life is not that far away.
"Right after I was diagnosed, I met this girl who was fighting breast cancer," McDowell said. "She said, 'Keep living your life, don't curl up in a ball. Try and stay normal. Even if sometimes you don't feel good, still go out, go do something. Try to stay as normal as possible and don't curl up away from everything and feel sorry and be like, Why? Why?' Because it's not going to help."
Watching him hang on Verzbicas' back wheel during bike training, it's easy to forget McDowell is sick. He's lost 10 pounds, but triathletes are lean and sinewy by nature. He shaved his head when his hair began to fall out, but lots of elite swimmers and bikers go bald in hopes of reducing resistance and saving a second or two.
The only obvious sign McDowell has cancer is the chemotherapy port, a walnut-sized lump beneath the skin on the right side of his chest that's visible when he's in the pool.
"You wouldn't really believe he has cancer -- except for the bald head, really. He's still training and doing everything with us," Verzbicas said. "It makes me look at what I have to do. He reminds me that I cannot give up. I'm not only doing this for myself, I'm doing it for others, as well."
Despite his previous success in triathlon, this is no easy undertaking for Verzbicas. He had been devoting his entire focus to one sport, and now he's had to switch to another. And not just any other sport, but one that crams three very different disciplines into one.
Triathlon demands an athleticism and versatility like few other sports, and getting back into it requires more than simply hopping back on the bike or into the pool.
"It's really tough to keep going," Verzbicas acknowledged. "But in the end, I just look at the big picture. I'll look back if I quit like, 'What have I done?' But if I complete it, then it's a big deal. So I've got to get through it."
He resumed triathlon training in March, put it aside in May to get ready for his June track meets, and then picked it back up after the Adidas meet. His first triathlon is July 10 in Edmonton, Alberta, followed by the national championships Aug. 7 in San Diego. Then it is off to Beijing in September for one last race; he is already qualified by virtue of his finish at last year's worlds.
Verzbicas and McDowell will go their separate ways after worlds, their individual sports taking them in different directions once again. Verzbicas will head to Oregon and resume his running career. McDowell plans to move to the new elite triathlon academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., following his final chemotherapy session on Aug. 22.
No matter where they are, though, they will always have a bond. And, Verzbicas hopes, a gold medal that will be both a token of what true friendship is, and a reminder that one would not be a champion without the other.
"Anything can happen, that's true. I'm not guaranteed a win," Verzbicas said. "Everyone wants to win just as much, if not more, than I do. But I think I have an advantage, because I'm doing it for someone else."