By Rick Cleveland
JACKSON – At 23, Ole Miss sprinter Isiah Young already has competed in the Olympics. He has become the fastest sprinter in the Southeastern Conference and only the 39th American to break the 10-second mark in the 100-meter dash.
What’s more, Young is among the favorites at both the 100-meter and 200-meter distances in the NCAA Track and Field Championships this week at Eugene, Ore.
Now then, here’s what makes all that all the more remarkable: In his state track meet, as a senior in high school, in the 100-meter dash, he finished dead last. Last, mind you. He didn’t trip. He didn’t stumble out of the blocks. He didn’t pull a hamstring.
“I just wasn’t fast,” Young said last week after a workout in preparation for the NCAA meet. “I couldn’t break 11 seconds in high school. There’s no other way to say it: I wasn’t fast.”
Said Ole Miss track coach Brian O’Neal, “I don’t think there’s ever been a story quite like Isiah’s. From dead last in high school to the Olympics and now a good chance to win the NCAA sprint championships. You couldn’t make it up. People wouldn’t believe you.”
But it’s true. And don’t be surprised if Young brings the national championship back to Mississippi.
Says O’Neal, “There are four or five guys who have a shot. Isiah is definitely one of those guys.”
The obvious question: How does one go from being a fair-to-middlin’ high school sprinter in Junction City, Kan., to being an internationally elite athlete at Ole Miss?
“I always believed I could be fast, and I never quit working on it,” Young said. “Every day, every workout, I dedicate myself to being the best I can possibly be.”
He did so when senior colleges didn’t recruit him out of high school and he settled for two years at Allen Community College in his hometown. He did so after two years at Allen when his times improved significantly, but he still had only one Division I college scholarship offer – from then-Ole Miss coach Joe Walker.
Young follows in a long line of Mississippi collegiate athletes who willed themselves from out of nowhere to greatness. Guys such as Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and Brett Favre come to mind. None had more than two scholarship offers.
Said O’Neal, a former Rebel middle distance runner from Pontotoc, “Isiah is all about hard work and dedication. He never stopped believing in himself and he never stopped working toward his two goals, running in the Olympics and breaking the 10-second mark in the 100.”
When O’Neal became the head track coach at Ole Miss in June of 2012, he could not believe what he had inherited in Young.
“I value him like an art collector would a Picasso,” O’Neal said. “His athletic ability, combined with his work ethic and humility is something very rare. I am blessed. As a coach, you don’t get a chance to work with many like him.”
Both O’Neal and Young say the best is yet to come. “He can get faster; he will get faster,” O’Neal said.
“I am still learning about this sport, still tweaking my workouts to get faster,” Young said. “I know I can get to where I consistently run sub-10-second 100s. That’s my goal now.”
That, and bringing home a national championship to Mississippi.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. You can read his blog at msfame.com.