By Kim Constantinesco
Many people know him now as the first person with dwarfism to complete an Ironman. But there’s so much more to 50-year-old John “The Hammer” Young, and his story.
Sure, the high school math teacher from Salem, Mass. made triathlon history when he crossed the finish line at IRONMAN Maryland in October, but it’s his approach to life that proves there’s really no limit to what you can do.
“A lot of times, I hear people who aren’t physically challenged say, ‘I could never run a marathon.’ I say, ‘That’s because you don’t want to,'” Young said. “You have to be willing to put in the time. I’m convinced that if someone wants to put in the time and effort, they can complete any physical challenge they want to. Your will has to be stronger than your ‘won’t.’ Your desire to do something has to be greater than what’s telling you not to.”
Young was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. He stands 4’4,” but the effort he puts forth on any race course far exceeds his stature, or anyone else’s for that matter.
That’s because with shorter arms, Young must take more strokes in the water compared to other swimmers. And, with shorter legs, he has to pedal 35% more revolutions than someone using an average 27-inch wheel. He did the calculations himself.
What math can’t account for, however, is the size of the determination within.
Beyond The Water
Young grew up in Toronto. He didn’t play team sports as a child, but he was always a swimmer.
“Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, and being a little person, there wasn’t a lot of stuff for me to do. I was often the team manager,” Young explained.
He was often teased by his peers, but says he developed thick skin thanks to several older brothers and sisters who wouldn’t let him feel sorry for himself.
“I think they were instrumental in helping me become a very independent person,” he said.
While in high school, Young decided he wanted to become a teacher. As soon as he finished college, he began teaching in Canada.
In 1994, he met his wife, Sue, at a convention put on by the Little People of Canada. Also short-statured, she and Young moved to Hong Kong for four years, which is where they had their son, Owen. They moved back to North America in 2003, settling in Massachusetts, where Young started his job at Pingree School, about 30 miles north of Boston.
In addition to teaching math, he started coaching basketball; a sport he truly loves, but when the school’s swim coach stepped down, they asked if he would lead the program. He’s been their swim coach for 11 years now.
Young was constantly surrounded by physical activity, but at the time, the most exercise he got was an occasional swim. His weight climbed to 195 pounds and in 2006, he was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea.
With treatment for the sleep disorder, his energy levels rose and he began biking. Then in 2009, he saw the legendary Dick Hoyt pushing his wheelchair-bound son, Rick, who has cerebral palsy, in an Ironman.
That’s when at 43 years old, Young signed up for his first sprint triathlon.
“Before I started training for that, I had never run more than once around the track,” Young said. “Now I run three to four times per week just for fun.”
Because those with dwarfism tend to have stenosis, or a narrowing of the spinal column, doctors typically recommend not to run.
“I have much more discomfort sitting or standing for long periods of time than I do when I run,” Young said. “I’m convinced that running itself is helping me.”
Once Young trained for and completed his first sprint, he was hooked, and eventually started seeking longer distance races. Before attacking IRONMAN Maryland, he had over 45 triathlons under his belt, and ran seven marathons including Boston three times and New York City once.
“There were lot of times as a child that I was told by people, sometimes even family members, ‘You can’t do that. You’re too small, it’s too dangerous, or the equipment doesn’t fit you,'” Young said. The fact that I’ve found this type of racing that not everyone does and requires a lot of preparation, that’s what appeals to me.”
Young was standing on the Maryland shoreline in his wetsuit with hundreds of other well-prepared athletes. The first task ahead: A 2.4-mile swim. The problem was the water was too choppy due to heavy winds . The water safety folks in kayaks couldn’t even stay in their designated area. How were they to rescue a swimmer in distress? Needless to say, the swim portion of the race was cancelled.
“The fact that I haven’t done the full distance is something in the back of my mind I want to rectify,” he said.
Disappointed, but understanding, Young kicked off his first Ironman officially on the bike course. He swept through rolling hills and supportive towns on his 100-mile ride (the bike course was shortened by 12 miles due to flooding on the course) before jumping off his custom-made bike and to begin the run.
A full marathon is a challenge, but due to heavy rains the three days prior to the race, there was also flooding on the run course.
“We had to run through water at a couple of different points. It was up to my thighs,” Young said. “I could have just said, ‘Forget it.'”
But, he pressed on. A few miles from the finish line, his coach reminded him that there’s only one first time Ironman finish.
“He told me, ‘You’ll do another Ironman, I’m sure, but there’s only one first time. You’ve got to make this worth while,'” Young said.
After his coach left him, the emotion took over.
“The interesting thing is, being a little person, a lot of times, people that don’t know you and don’t know what it’s like to be physically challenged, they think it’s okay to snap pictures of you and laugh, giggle, and point,” Young said. “There was a point where I was running and getting really close to the finishers chute, and I basically just yelled out really loudly, ‘Go ahead, take a picture of me now!’ It was a response to all the people who have doubted me, or thought it was okay to make fun of someone who is short-statured.”
Upon crossing the finish line in 14 hours, 20 minutes, Young’s 14-year old son, decorated him with a medal. It was fitting. His son is the one who gave him the moniker “The Hammer” after he was unable to finish the 2014 Boston Marathon.
He told me, “Sometimes you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail.”
And that October day, Young was most certainly The Hammer.
Break It Down
Racing hasn’t just changed Young, physically. His outlook on life has shifted, too.
“I think I’m able to deal with changes better than 10 years ago. I don’t get as uptight or nervous when something doesn’t go the right way,” he explained. “I used to be a bit of a perfectionist where if it didn’t go right the first time, I was disappointed. Now, I can learn from those situations and say, ‘Well, there’s always another time.'”
The lessons he’s learned in training and on the race course have filled his classroom as well.
For example, Young now breaks down his endurance events into 10-minute intervals. In a marathon, he’ll run for nine minutes, and walk for one. He takes that same “chunking” approach to long work days and he encourages his students to do the same.
“I talk to my students about doing that in whatever task they have to complete,” Young said. “If they have an essay to write, they can take a big job and break it into smaller pieces. It makes it easier.”
Young is often invited to speak at schools and running clubs. It’s easy to see why. He’s been told he ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t,’ but he listens to his own body and does things his way.
“The world is learning that just because you’re in this shell, in this body, there’s really no right way or wrong way to do things,” Young said. “I have the awareness that there’s different people in the world who are more challenged than I am. You just be happy for who you are, and where you are in life.”
Great words from someone who has gone the distance.