American triathlete Kevin McDowell looks back on the long journey to a podium at the Summer Olympics: "I can take it, whatever is going to be thrown my way"

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As a boy growing up in Illinois, Kevin McDowell wanted to be a triathlete so badly that he convened a family meeting — his first — to persuade his mom and dad.

Years later, his body "so sick" with cancer, McDowell would watch the Olympic Games and imagine himself there. One day.

It did not come quickly: The course of McDowell's life and athletic career careens from high to low to high again. Sometimes it is circular, like a track; other times it winds up a hill and down into a valley.

McDowell was 17 when he realized, for the first time, that he might be able to make a future for himself in triathlon — a particularly punishing kind of race combining swimming, biking and running.

He set his sights on the 2016 Games in Brazil.

The next year, at 18 and having already won a bronze and silver at the Youth Olympic Games, he eyed a final appearance at the Junior World Championships. He felt something bubbling up in him and thought, We're in a great position leading into this year. We still have so much we can build on.

Kevin McDowell
Credit: Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Two days later, his mother, a nurse, spotted a concerning lump on his neck. The day after his visit to the doctor, his parents called him home from an outing.

"I walk in, they're at the kitchen table and they said, 'You have cancer.' "

A biopsy showed that McDowell had Hodgkin's lymphoma. Good news, of a sort. This was March 2011.

"We knew it was really curable, so we at least knew it was a straightforward path," McDowell, who will turn 29 this weekend, tells PEOPLE. "I mean, I was going to have to go through six months of very intense chemotherapy to get through it. And it was a rough battle ... but I made it through pretty well and then thought, 'Oh, I'm done. I beat cancer. Let's get back to the triathlon thing.' "

He tried. He began racing again in early 2012. But by 2013 he took another break: "My body had just been breaking down so much because I returned too quickly from cancer," he says. (He adds, wryly: "Lance Armstrong gave me false hope.")

So instead he rested.

Kevin McDowell
Credit: Photo by Alfredo Lopez/Jam Media/LatinContent via Getty Images

"I took like five months off from actual sport. Went to school, really pursued my degree and spent extra focus on that," McDowell says. "I stayed active. My limit was one hour a day of activity and that was all I needed. And then eventually I was like, 'Okay, I'm ready to come back.' "

He failed to qualify for the 2016 team heading to Rio de Janeiro — "a bit of a heartbreak," he says, even as he knows now that he wasn't ready.

"I think it ended up shaping me to make this experience here to then making 2020 Olympic team that much more special and meaningful," he says.

There were doubts: "I questioned things after 2016," McDowell says. As he entered his mid-20s, with friends starting families and settling down, "I'm traveling around so much doing different things that my life is a different pathway than a lot of people."

Now, though, "I don't question anything with them doing it. I know there's still time for all that stuff, and I'm truly living my dream and passion right now."

"I had a couple people during different period that talked me into staying [in triathlon] — saying, 'Just hang in a little longer, do this, give it one more go,' " McDowell says. "And boy, am I glad I listened to them. They're the ones that have backed me and supported me, teammates, coaches, friends and specifically my family as well."

In 2018, during what McDowell calls his last low moment, he almost walked away from it all. Until a sudden change: "It was crazy, I actually went through a growth spurt. I grew about half an inch, put on much more muscle mass and I kind of finished my growth."

"All the chemotherapy delayed my growth and everything, and I just kept pushing so hard in triathlon," he explains. "I'd never let my body fully heal and absorb everything."

"After that, I kind of hit a new spark and I've been a new athlete," he says. "So like I say, I'm 28 now but I feel like a 23-year-old body."

In June, at last, McDowell made it to the Olympic team. He earned his spot through a selection process rather than a qualification in competition. The sport press called his selection "semi-surprising."

"I rise to the occasion in the highest stakes," McDowell says. "I'm very consistent and reliable, and I think that was something to show. And I think they started to see I'm really starting to get my stride."

McDowell has now competed twice in Tokyo: First in the men's triathlon where he earned sixth — a record for an American there. (And he walked away with a bit of a black eye.)

"I told someone the day before. I was like, 'Top eight, I would've been over the moon with,' but I was kind of like lightheartedly saying that," McDowell tells PEOPLE.

He originally didn't even plan to bring his podium gear — what was the point?

"I emptied the tank and knew I had left it all out there," he says.

Kevin McDowell
Credit: Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

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Kevin McDowell
Credit: Photo credit should read CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Success followed success on Saturday: McDowell competed with Katie Zaferes, Taylor Knibb, and Morgan Pearson in a two-men/two-women mixed relay.

The U.S. won silver. McDowell says his triathlon earlier in the week was "actually a surprise bonus" that gave him "confidence going into Saturday."

"We're starting to break down barriers, so, hopefully, this is just the beginning of what's more to come," he says.

Before his first race, McDowell — who has been staying in touch with friends and family while in Tokyo via FaceTime audio and WhatsApp and all kinds of group texts — read three letters, from his parents and his sister and his grandparents.

"[It] just kind of brought me back to that little Kevin, with that grit and fire that just wanted to go and race and be here," he says. "They reminded me when I was so sick and visualizing one day to be back out here and watching the Olympic Games — I want[ed] to be on that one day. And so now I'm like, 'I get this opportunity. Let's make the most of it and have fun.' "

McDowell is much different from the teenager who learned he had cancer 11 years ago. Brighter, chattier, with a "new light in life and excitement."

He is quick to credit the support of his loved ones and to highlight efforts to treat pediatric cancer, including his work with the Illinois foundation Cal's Angels.

"It's been quite a whirlwind," he says.

"But I'm glad I never gave up."

To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics now on NBC.