US 3x3 basketball star and cancer survivor Pat McCaffery has had a tougher journey than most to the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018, but now he’s fully focused on overcoming a slow start to win gold for his country.
When the US men’s 3x3 basketball team lost their opening game here at the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018, it’s unlikely that star shooting guard Pat McCaffery was particularly flustered. He has, after all, overcome far bigger hurdles to succeed on the court. Just four years ago, on his 14th birthday, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer after his coach had noticed he was lacking his usual energy during training sessions.
“He could see over a few of my workouts that I was losing breath more quickly,” explains McCaffery. “I was really struggling to recover and in one session I just totally hit a wall.”
Scans revealed a large tumour in his trachea, with surgery then discovering that it was cancerous. McCaffery then endured a tough period of treatment and rehabilitation that included more surgery and a dose of radioactive iodine that meant he had to spend three days in complete isolation. Over the course of a few months, McCaffery focused solely on his recovery, with school and basketball taking a back seat.
“I missed a ton of school, but my teachers were all really great about it,” he explains. “It was the same with basketball. It had always been kind of an escape for me from all the other things that were going on, but suddenly I wasn’t really able to play as much, especially not with the team. I could shoot baskets by myself but it wasn’t the same. That really killed me; I just wanted to go play.”
After overcoming such adversity, it’s little wonder that McCaffery was able to rally his fellow US troops to bounce back in their second game of the YOG, where they came from behind to secure a late 21-19 victory over Mongolia, with the large Urban Park crowd sensing a huge upset.
Olympic.org sat down with McCaffery in the Youth Olympic Village to hear more about his journey to the YOG and his experiences in Buenos Aires.
How have things been going on the court for you so far here in Buenos Aires?
We’re one and one so far – that's not ideal; we'd like to be two and zero. But after we lost our first game, I thought we did a lot better in the second. We had a good practice yesterday, and then another good practice today, so I think our team is definitely moving in the right direction. I'm excited for what we do in the rest of the tournament.
How exciting is it to be a part of the Youth Olympic Games?
I am having a lot of fun so far; it's really neat. I've never done anything like this before, just being around all these other people from all different parts of the world. There are so many other countries, so many other athletes from different sports; it's just a really cool opportunity and I'm trying to make the most of it. I’m taking as many pictures and mental notes as I can, because I want to remember this. It’s something really special in my life.
What do you hope to take away from this experience?
This is the first time that I’ve been able to represent the USA, so it’s a really great opportunity. There’s really no bigger accomplishment in basketball than being able to have "USA" across your chest and being able to represent your country on an international stage. I’m just trying to make the most of it, get to know people from all over the world and step out of my comfort zone a little bit.
You’ve had a tougher journey than most people to get here, having already survived a battle with cancer. How frightening was it to receive that diagnosis at the age of just 14?
Any time you hear the word "cancer" being involved, it really scares you. Then my mom did a lot of research on it and I met with all the doctors. They told me that most kids who get thyroid cancer end up being able to live completely normal lives afterwards. They referred to it as “a bump in the road.” It was obviously a pretty big bump, but I’ve recovered pretty well.
After going through all those months of treatment, were you able to take anything from the whole experience and use it on the basketball court?
Yeah, for sure. Whenever I feel down, I just realise that my situation could always be a lot worse. I don't really take anything for granted anymore at this point; I just keep pushing and know that every situation can get better.
Will that attitude be able to help you here at the Youth Olympic Games?
Definitely. There are some really good teams here and our hands are full, that’s for sure. It's not going to be a little walk in the park to get the gold, which is what a lot of people expect for the US. There are a lot of teams that are better than us at the 3x3 game because they’ve played it more and been together longer than we have. But if we just keep working, just keep pushing, keep working on the things that we've been working on with our coaches and everything like that, I think we'll be able to have a breakthrough here, and hopefully make a run at the gold medal.