At 4'4" tall, there are many more "size-dependent challenges" where John Young wouldn't have a very high probability of success, either. But rather than focus on the "can't do's" in life, Young continues to prove to the naysayers, to himself, and, perhaps most importantly, to his 7-year-old son Owen, that it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that is important.
I was introduced to Young by Dick and Rick Hoyt. While doing a story on the famed father/son triathlon duo, they shared an email that Young had previously sent to them. After using the email in my story, Dick and Rick Hoyt—Modern Day Super Heroes, I was thanked by Young for acknowledging his own personal athletic endeavors.
I couldn't let the opportunity pass to delve deeper into the story behind John Young. A new hero was born.
Young was born 43 years ago with achondroplasia, a congenital condition that affects the body’s ability to form cartilage. The affliction, a form of dwarfism, hinders normal bone growth.
Though Young’s parents and siblings are of average size, Young has lived his life with the stature of a "little person", but the heart, drive, and determination of someone three times his size.
Through his refusal to accept size as a deterrent, Young has served as a school basketball coach near his previous hometown of Toronto as well as during a stint in Hong Kong, and at his current school, The Pingree School in South Hamilton, Mass., where he is also a high school mathematics teacher.
He has since moved on to become Pingree's varsity swimming coach, a position that he has a pedigree for. In 1993, Young competed in the World Dwarf Games in Chicago as the sole representative of Canada. He won two gold medals swimming in the 200-yard freestyle and the 100-yard breaststroke.
"I really enjoyed coaching basketball and hesitated to give it up, but in retrospect, I'm glad I made the switch", he said. "Swimming is a sport I do myself, where with basketball I was really a "book coach." I never really played the sport, I just enjoyed it. It was something I understood."
He is now beginning his fourth season as coach of the Pingree swim team, a program for which he has high hopes.
As a teen in Toronto, he spent his high school years managing the varsity football team, while playing intramural rugby and hockey.
“I’ve always been interested in athletics, either as a fan, participant, or coach,” he explains.
But his latest challenge is as a triathlete, a sport where he can successfully compete against himself and his own personal times, while competing with able-bodied athletes.
"I don't see myself as disabled; in fact I don't like the term", he said. "I see myself as simply differently-abled."
To date, Young has competed in four triathlons. In his first event last July, the Mill City Triathlon in Lowell, Young competed in the aqua bike portion of the event. The aqua bike portion of a sprint triathlon includes a one-third-mile swim in the Merrimac River, followed by a 13-mile back ride.
He found the Mill City event to be "both exhilarating and terrifying", as the water was running both high and fast.
"At one point in the race, for about 15 minutes, I was swimming but not moving because the current was so strong. My wife actually thought I was going to get carried away," he said, laughing.
The one-third mile swim took "50 minutes up and 12 minutes back," John says with a chuckle. After he completed the 13-mile bike ride and went into the record books as an official finisher, he was hooked.
His official time for his first aqua-bike was two hours and one minute.
Young hesitated to participate in the run portion of the triathlons because running is the piece that he finds most physically challenging. However, after some coercion by Pingree Athletic Director Chris Powers, Young decided to add the run to his triathlon repertoire.
"Chris said, 'Just walk the run portion. What difference does it make as long as you finish?'"
He entered the Witch City Triathlon in Salem, Mass., as one of 299 competitors. As the only little person in the field, he cycled faster than 21 competitors and actually swam and ran faster than one finisher.
But in John Young's mind it isn't about winning but simply challenging himself to compete. He admits that he is doing this as much for his son Owen as he is for himself as an exercise in self-esteem building.
"My son was born with the same type of dwarfism my wife, Sue, and I have. About 18 months ago he was really struggling, finally realizing that all of his friends are going to be bigger than him and faster then him. It's difficult for him," explains Young, who also competed last summer in the challenging Timberman Triathlon in Gilford, N.H., and the TDD Triathlon in Douglas, Mass.
"He asked 'Can I get better shoes? Will that make me run faster?' We try to explain to him that there are other ways he is going to find success and running against other people probably isn't one of them."
Following the Witch City event, Young was approached by the team captain of Comprehensive Racing, who asked him to join their team. "He contacted me and said 'If you're going to keep racing, we want you on our team.'"
"I've never been invited to join any type of athletic team. I was always the last one picked. For the first time, to actually be wanted—even at 43 years old—was the coolest thing in the world."
Before I ended my conversation with my new favorite inspiration, Young shared his favorite quote with me, a quote by Ashley Halsey.
"Triathlon has become life in microcosm, a metaphor that gives truth to the wisdom passed from each generation to the next: Work hard and you will be rewarded, have faith in yourself and you will excel; do not falter when an ill wind blows your way."
And that, is why John Young competes.
John Young will be competing this Sunday, Dec. 6 in the Jolly Jaunt a 5K walk/run in Danvers, Mass., to benefit the Special Olympics. His personal pledge page contains the following quote:
"Being physically challenged myself, I've gone through much of my life being told by others that there are certain things I shouldn't do because of my short stature. Running and competing in triathlons is one thing I have chosen to do in order to get fit and show people you can do pretty much whatever you set your mind to.
"To that end, I'm participating in the 2009 Jolly Jaunt because I believe in the highly-effective programs run by Special Olympics Massachusetts, and I want to do something to help."
"I have set a goal to raise money for my local-area Special Olympics athletes. Special Olympics athletes never pay a cent to participate in any of the 26 different sports offered, so we are raising critical dollars to fund the year-round sports training and athletic competitions for athletes in Massachusetts with intellectual disabilities.
"By running/walking or financially supporting the 2009 Jolly Jaunt, we can improve the lives of some very courageous and dedicated athletes in Massachusetts with intellectual disabilities and other closely-related developmental disabilities.
Your donation will help to provide them with programs and services that will bring them a more healthy lifestyle, as well as happiness and pride and in all that they do."
Todd Civin is a freelance writer who writes for Bleacher Report, Sports, Then and Now, and Seamheads. He is a supporter of A Glove of Their Own, the award-winning children’s story that teaches paying it forward through baseball.
The Joe Niekro Foundation is the most recent non-profit organization to join the A Glove of Their Own team and will earn $3 from each sale of the book purchased using the donor code JNF636 Joe Niekro Foundation.