July 21, 2012

Isiah Young’s surprising trek from Junction City to the Olympics

Bryan O’Neal repeats the time — 11.11 seconds — several times. As if it will eventually start to make sense the more times he says it.

Bryan O’Neal repeats the time — 11.11 seconds — several times. As if it will eventually start to make sense the more times he says it.

It will not.

“He ran an 11.11,” said O’Neal, the track and field coach at Mississippi. “Eleven point eleven seconds. Can you believe that?”

It is an impossible story, except for the fact that it is happening right now. Yes, Isiah Young finished last in the Kansas Class 6A 100-meter final four years ago with a time of 11.11 seconds.

And yes, he will run the 200 at the Olympics next month in London after becoming an All-American for Mississippi this season and whipping off a time of 20.16 in the 200 at the Olympic Trials, good for the final U.S. spot in the event.

“That’s the great thing about the Olympics, stories like this,” O’Neal said. “Stories of how someone came from nothing and worked their way into a spot where they have the world at their fingertips.

“In 20 years of coaching track and field, I’ve never seen anything like it. I wish I could explain it but it is impossible to explain.”

Any explanation of Young’s meteoric rise in the international track scene begins in 2008 with then-Allen County Community College assistant track coach Clinton Fletcher heading to Junction City on a recruiting visit — to scout a distance runner for the Bluejays.

“I was getting ready to take off and one of the coaches, Forika McDougald, asked me to come back and look at one of their sprinters,” said Fletcher, who is now an assistant coach at Samford. “So I watched Isiah run in a 400 relay … and I saw this guy with raw talent, who kind of just, by sheer will, tracked down the guy in front of him.”

What Fletcher saw was enough to offer Young a scholarship to Allen – the only scholarship offer Young received after competing in just one year of high school track.

“He came (to Allen) and did everything he had to and more,” Fletcher said. “It wasn’t like he improved by leaps and bounds, it was just that he came and he worked hard. At everything, academics, track … he was on top of it.”

Young flourished with the Red Devils, becoming an NJCAA All-American in 2010, although his best 200 time – 22 seconds – gave little evidence of a future Olympian. Either way, his performance at Allen was good enough to get him a scholarship offer to run with the Rebels.

“Iola was good for me,” Young told the Iola Register earlier this month. “It was quiet and friendly. I needed that kind of situation so I could really focus on what was important for getting me to the next level of my education and my running career.”

Young, who left for Europe to compete in several track meets before the Olympics, did not return e-mails or voice messages asking for comment for this article.

“I couldn’t be happier for Isiah and for how things turned out,” Fletcher said. “Seeing him make the Olympic team made my day that day and it’s made my year. Just to think that you had a little bit to do with something like that … it makes you feel good.”

After sitting out the 2011 season. Young began to turn heads for Mississippi this season, including winning an SEC title in the 200 with a school-record time of 20.32 seconds.

“Everything about Isiah’s story is Cinderella,” O’Neal said. “There’s no odds you could figure for him being able to make it from where he was to the Olympics because it’s an impossible story.

“After the NCAA meet, where I knew he was disappointed with how he finished, we sat down and I told him just to forget about it and focus on the Trials, but no way did I think he would end up in London.”

Young finished fourth in the NCAA outdoor championships before finishing third at the Olympic trials with a time of 20.16, behind Wallace Spearmon and Maurice Mitchell.

“I don’t think you can count him out for a big reason,” O’Neal said. “That is that he’s running for the greatest country in the world. Don’t ever underestimate what you can do when you’re running for that.”

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