Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Massachusetts little person shows his athleticism as a triathlete

From Wicked Local in Mass.:

SALEM, Mass. - The closest most of us will ever get to a triathlon is watching some SportsCenter highlights from the comfort of our couches — the last few competitors struggling across the finish line, their legs bowing beneath them as they fight to complete the last leg of a dramatic swimming, biking and foot-racing ordeal.

We would never dream of pushing our own less conditioned, “normal” bodies to such a limit, enduring endless hours of preparation and training.

If we were to meet someone who was a triathlete we would most likely have a mixture of feelings — admiration of their sculpted physique, respect for their dedication and maybe a little skeptical awe for that “you’ve-gotta-be-crazy-to-do-that” attitude.

But John Young (pictured) stands out, even compared to other impressive triathletes, because he is a gold medalist who’s far smaller than the average man. The 43-year-old Salem resident is a little person, also known as a dwarf.

Young was born with achondroplasia, a congenital condition that has a negative regulatory effect on bone growth, but it has clearly not had a negative effect on his attitude and lifestyle. He says he’s always had a drive to push the body he was born with to new and greater… well … heights.

“I really dislike the word ‘disabled,’” he says. “I am ‘differently-abled.’”

No stranger to rough-and-tumble extracurricular activities, the Toronto-born Young spent his high school years managing the varsity football team while playing intramural rugby and hockey. In 1993, he attended the World Dwarf Games in Chicago, Ill. as the sole representative of Canada. He won two gold medals swimming in the 200-yard freestyle and the 100-yard breaststroke.

“I’ve always been interested in athletics, either as a fan, participant or coach,” he says.

A math teacher, varsity swimming coach and former basketball coach at Pingree School in South Hamilton, Young credits a student for starting him on the road toward the second component of triathlons.

“I have always been a good swimmer. I started cycling a little more than two years ago when a student at Pingree challenged the school to bike to work to save gas,” says Young, who rides a specially modified child’s bicycle.

Bolstered by his commuting success, Young recalls, “I had heard about a competition that goes along with triathlons called the ‘aquabike.’ You are only required to do the first two-thirds of a triathlon [swimming and biking]. I decided to do… the Mill City Triathlon. I did it and was hooked.”

Pressure on the lower spine, which is common among those with achondroplasia, deters some little people from running, but Young says a work colleague told him that “at worst, I could walk the ‘run’ portion.” Encouraged by the support of his coworker, it didn’t take long for Young to begin pushing his athleticism even further.

Young came in last place in the Witch City Triathlon in August, but finished the entire course. In fact, Young beat 26 other competitors in the cycling part of the race, which has mainly typically-abled competitors.

The Boston Street resident was invited to join Comprehensive Racing, a Salem-based team of New England athletes who focus on triathlon competition and training. He competed in New Hampshire’s Timberman Triathlon this past August, finishing 1,093 out of 1,100 competitors.

“I was not the slowest swimmer or runner and I managed to beat 46 other cyclists,” he says.

Young is realistic about his ability to compete but enthusiastic about his grit and determination.

“This is the body I was born with,” he says. “There is not much I can do to change that fact. I can sit on the couch and complain about always finishing last, or I can get out there and give it my best shot. I choose to get off the couch.”

It would seem Young spends very little time on the couch — riding to work and around the North Shore, swimming at the Salem YMCA and running in Hamilton after work hours. He hopes to start training with the members in Comprehensive Racing, “for some good pointers.”

He balances his teaching career and athletic routine with his home life, spending time with his wife Sue and their son, first-grader Owen. His wife and son are also little people.

Before winter sets in, this triathlete will be competing in TDD Triathlon in Douglas, Mass., which raises money for the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center in Worcester.

As he continues to push his physical abilities past the limit of what most of us would consider attainable, Young would even like to see another gold medal in his future.

“I have some lofty dreams of some day competing in an international distance triathlon [0.9-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 6.2-mile run],” he says, “and maybe even a half-ironman-aquabike [1.2-mile swim and 56-mile bike].”

Proving that athleticism, endurance and strength don’t necessarily have to come with a traditional physique, Young has some advice for people who need a bit more motivation to stop watching those triathletes from the comfort of their couches: “Get out and try. You will never know if you can do it, unless you make the attempt.”