The young man from Junction City is standing on the track with camera bulbs flashing at the Olympics. Two lanes over, Usain Bolt is making bunny ears at the crowd. Back home in Kansas, a mother is in tears. The whole thing defies logic.
People ask Isiah Young how it happened all the time. Every day, it seems. They ask his mother, Betty, too. Isiah and Betty usually shake their head, shrug their shoulders, because really, what can they say?
This is such a blur for Isiah. Here he is at the Summer Olympics, representing the United States. Can you believe it? Four years ago, Young had never even run track, never done an organized sport, when the guy two lanes over was breaking world records. It’s crazy.
Maybe someday this will sink in. Maybe someday he’ll understand that stories like his just don’t happen, that kids who don’t win as much as a single high school race just don’t grow up to be college All-Americans and run the 200 meters at the Olympics against the fastest man in the world.
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Young can’t think about any of that right now, of course. He has a race to run. So he salutes the crowd and kneels down on the track and waits for the starter’s gun.
Back in Junction City, a proud mother who works as a minister’s assistant is crying the happiest tears you could ever see.
“Wow,” Betty Young says. “He’s my Olympic hero.”
Isiah Young never planned on becoming a track star. Heck, track? Please. When you’re the oldest of four kids with a single mother you don’t have time for silly dreams like that. Isiah worked.
He worked at McDonald’s, at Sonic, jobs like that to help mom where he could. If he could make enough to buy his own clothes, that’s one less thing for mom to worry about. Isiah’s always been thoughtful like that.
If Isiah ever thought he was fast back in high school, he doesn’t remember it now. He only went out for track as a senior because Junction City High had a requirement for graduation. It was either a sport or the band, and track looked easy. So he did track.
“I mean, there’s nothing wrong with band,” he says. “But playing an instrument just isn’t for me.”
Isiah didn’t think much of track at first, and the truth is track didn’t think much of him. His times weren’t great, he skipped some practices. His heart just wasn’t in it. Might never have been, either, but Isiah wanted to go to college and he didn’t have a better way to pay for it.
You could see some natural talent right away. Some people can just run. Neither of Isiah’s parents were ever athletes, but he had a gift. He just needed time to find it. He went to Allen County Community College and worked on his form and the improvements came, but slowly. His best times at Allen County wouldn’t have won the Kansas Class 6A state meet.
Where did this come from?
Allen County had an assistant coach named Clinton Fletcher who used to run at Mississippi. He used a similar training system, which is how Ole Miss came to know Isiah. The Rebels took a chance knowing Isiah was so new to the sport that he really didn’t know what he was doing. He needed someone to teach him.
Ole Miss is where Isiah exploded onto the track scene, like a comet nobody saw coming. He made All-America in indoor 60 meters, set a school record in the 200, and became the first in Ole Miss history to make All-America in both the 100 and 200.
This summer, three years after he first started the sport and two years after he first took it seriously, Isiah qualified for the U.S. Olympic team.
Where did this come from?
Isiah hears this question all the time. He doesn’t have a good answer. There is no good answer, not one that makes sense. Most of the athletes here have trained since they were kids. Isiah, now 22, stumbled into an Olympic career because he didn’t want to play in the band and he thought track looked easy.
“I don’t know,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m just blessed, I guess. I don’t know.”
Back home, a mother is crying those happy tears, updating the computer to see how her Olympic hero did.
Isiah Young tried to think of this as just a race. He kept telling himself that. Just a race. He saw Bolt backstage, with everyone warming up, but the ovation out on the track still took him back a bit. You should’ve heard it. Eighty-thousand people screaming at once. It’s not nerves, really. It’s fun.
Isiah knew this one would be tough. He knew his only chance was a quick start, his best start, to get far enough ahead that the field had to catch up. But it didn’t happen like that. Isiah’s start came a bit slow, and by the time they hit the straightaway he could see most of the field in front of him. Bolt, 10 meters or so ahead by now, was already downshifting.
Isiah didn’t run particularly well. He finished last in his group, in 20.89 seconds. That’s more than half a second below his best time, which would’ve qualified for Thursday night’s final.
But this is not a sad ending. Isiah did not hang his head. He looked up, into the stands. Looked around, at the other runners. He smiled a little bit. This is fun. He’s at the Olympics, for crying out loud.
Back home, that’s exactly what his mother is doing.
“It’s a gift from God,” she is saying. “No one’s ever heard of him. They say, ‘Where has he been?’ I don’t know. People always brag about their kids. But if you want a perfect kid, if you think of a kid who can be perfect, that’s my son. He always tries to make me proud. And he does, every time. When I think I can’t be any prouder, he does it again.”
Isiah is still smiling 15 minutes or so after the race. He’s sweating a little, his heart still racing. Every now and then he takes a big breath, trying to catch up. He’s staying here in London through the weekend. This is the time of his life. He’s with the best athletes in the world, less than four years after deciding to become one himself.
Where did this come from?
Isiah doesn’t know. He can’t know. There is no way to answer a question like that. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Isiah is here now. He doesn’t care where this came from, not nearly as much as where it’s taking him.