Young clears major hurdles in life, track

January 20, 1993|By Mark Whicker | Mark Whicker,Orange County Register

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Hurdles.

Someone else kept setting them out for Kevin Young.

Long before Young set the world 400-meter hurdle record at Barcelona last August, Commentary

and became the first man to clear them in fewer than 47 seconds, and won the Olympic gold medal to boot, he saw barricades around him.

The difference was, he saw beyond.

Hurdle No. 1 came with the territory.

"Right across the street from the Watts Towers," Young said the other day, as he accepted the Athlete of the Year Award from Track & Field News.

"I had a strong mother and a strong stepfather. I was blessed. But I also saw shootings in the projects. I saw gangs. They used to chase me home. They'd knock me off the basketball court, because I was so tall and lanky. Then I ran track and they'd sit in the stands, making deals, and cheer me on. It's all about respect, down there."

Hurdle No. 2 came when Young and his family lived in Compton, Calif. Young was an eighth-grader. He was not living the Olympic ideal.

"One day they got me," he said. "I stole some car batteries. My mother and stepfather watched me lie, lie up and down to the policemen. I got off because my story checked out. But then they said, 'The next time this happens, we're not coming down to the police station.'

"That woke me up. Then a friend of mine killed somebody over a game of pool. Took a knife out and stabbed him. Didn't mean to kill him. But he did. Ninth-grade kid. He was gone for 10 years. That, that scared me."

Hurdle No. 3 was college. Young had been the student body president at Jordan High. But USC didn't accept him. UCLA did. It also challenged him.

"I remember coming to the track and telling John [Smith, his coach then and now] that I couldn't make it," Young said. "I remember coming from class and crying, right there on the track."

"Yeah," Smith said, "and I remember my days at UCLA, crying at that same spot."

Young nearly flunked out. Then he was diagnosed as dyslexic. He graduated with a 2.45 grade point average. Not bad. He says he will be a teacher some day.

Hurdle No. 4 came in 1988. Young had won the NCAA championship at UCLA. But that trophy melted into wax at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, when David Patrick trotted with the U.S. flag, behind Edwin Moses and Andre Phillips. Patrick thought he had edged Young for the third and last spot. No one could disagree. Then the replay, magnified and focused, showed Young was third, by a wrinkle of the forehead.

Hurdle No. 5 . . .

By now the hurdles didn't matter. Young was up to speed.

"I see the video of myself in Barcelona," Young said, "and I was cooking. I was just flying around the track."

In the athletes' village, he had drawn a picture of himself on the wall, and written a tiny 46.89. Jose Parrilla, the 800-meter runner, came in and told Young this would never do. "Write the numbers big," Parrilla advised.

So Young ran 46.78. And hit the last hurdle. And held his arms aloft. That is why Smith says 45.80 is a possibility.

"Our goals this year," Smith said, "are to make sure this event is identified with Kevin Young. There's no point in putting together a long streak of victories like Edwin did. Edwin picked his spots, and he would make sure good competitors weren't in his races. He used to do it to Kevin.

"What we want are solid times, under 47. That will let everybody know."

Hungarian track and field analysts say Young's 46.78 invades a frontier. Since Moses' previous record was 47.02, they call it the equivalent of a 30-foot long jump or a 9.8 100-meter run.

Sadly, Young's great race was elbowed out of U.S. headlines. By steroid bickering. By TV moments like Jim Redmond helping his son Derek across the line, or Dave Johnson limping home for a decathlon bronze. By other glorious runs: Quincy Watts, Mike Marsh, Carl Lewis in the relays.

In Europe, where they know track, they know it was Kevin Young's Olympics. A less-politically correct Sports Illustrated would have saved the tribute to Arthur Ashe, and made Young its Athlete of the Year, an award Moses shared (with Mary Lou Retton) in 1984.

Young still wonders if Barcelona was real, or just a high-definition dream. He remembers "running on air." There was something dutiful in his smile that night. He had cleared a hurdle. Weren't there more?

Ten days later he warmed up at Cologne.

"I looked up at the scoreboard, and they listed all the records," he said.

"German record, European record . . . World record, Kevin Young, 46.78."

The rapture almost bent his knees. He saw a long, flat life ahead. Without hurdles. He had finally jumped over the world.

"It's mine," thought Kevin Young, his eyes moist and disbelieving.

Then he ran 47.42. The hurdles are easier now, because they, too, are his.

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