At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Kevin Young did what many believed to be impossible: not only did he break the 400m hurdle world record of 47.02 set by the great Edwin Moses nine years earlier, but he became the first man to break the 47.00 barrier in that event, earning himself a gold medal in the process. As of this writing, Young’s 46.78 still stands as the only sub-47.00 ever run. Recently I had a chance to talk over the phone with the two-time NCAA champion and 1993 World Champion about his track career and his views on many topics related to track & field.
Born and raised in the Watts section of Southern California, “right across the street from the Watts Towers,” Young grew up with five older sisters and an older brother. His upbringing in the inner city during a time when gang warfare was on the rise gave him many opportunities to fall in with the wrong crowd. But the support of his family as well as his own common sense helped him to avoid making the type of mistake that could have prevented him from ever displaying his enormous physical gifts. “We had it all where I grew up,” Young said. “Crack houses, liquor stores, gang-bangers. We had it all right there in my neighborhood. I used to hang out with the gang-bangers, but I didn’t do dumb stuff with ‘em.”
Instead, Young ran the streets. Literally. By the time he entered Jordan High School in Los Angeles as a ninth-grader in 1980, it was apparent that he had some talent that needed to be tapped into. At first he focused on the jumping events, but in the tenth grade he turned to the hurdles. “I had a cousin who ran at [nearby] Banning High School with Tonie Campbell, [1988 bronze medalist in the 110m hurdles], so I’d known about him since I was in junior high, and I’d watched his development.” The influence of his cousin and the inspiration of Campbell led to Young’s decision to try hurdling himself. He did well enough to finish third in 110m high hurdles at the California State meet as a senior. And his personal best of 37.54 in the 300 meter intermediate hurdles also impressed many observers.
But not enough to earn him a scholarship offer to a major university. His high school times were actually pedestrian for an athlete in a state like California, where high school track reigns supreme. If he wanted to run for a powerhouse program like USC or UCLA, he would have to walk on. So that’s what he did. He entered the University of California at Los Angeles in the fall of 1984 – the same year that new assistant coach John Smith took over as the man in charge of the team’s sprinters and hurdlers. An elite 400 meter runner for UCLA himself back in the early 1970s, Smith immediately saw the potential in this skinny, 6-4 18-year-old with the 37-inch inseam.
While Young, coming out of high school, fancied himself more of a high hurdler, Smith envisioned his young protégé developing into an Olympic-caliber intermediate hurdler. UCLA was already stacked with great high hurdlers on scholarship, including Raymond Young, who had beaten Young on his way to winning the California State Championship. They also had Steve Kerho, who had won the state championship in 1982. “They had a whole bullpen of hurdlers,” Young said. “I was a developing hurdler, just trying to get the race right, with the height of the hurdles going up. But I handled myself, stayed in the cut. I wanted to prove myself, and I really wanted to be a part of that team.”
Young found that the switch in emphasis to the longer hurdle race was definitely to his liking. “The 110s are really technical,” he explained. “You really have to split atoms in that race.” From the beginning at UCLA, he found success in the intermediates. “I was beating up on guys who used to beat me up in high school.” In the intermediates, his height and inseam provided him with a natural advantage. In the shorter hurdle race, with the hurdles so close together, these strengths were weaknesses. Smith noticed this difference, and encouraged Young to master the longer race.
To make a long story short, he did. By his junior year in 1987, Young won the NCAA Championships in the 400m hurdles, and he also went on to represent the US in his first international competition – the Pan-Am Games, where he finished second. By 1988, the walk-on from Watts was a team captain, and he earned an Olympic berth by finishing third at the Olympic Trials in June, shortly after winning another NCAA Championship in a meet record time of 47.85. Along the way, as a junior, he ran on the UCLA 4×400 team that became the first to break 3:00, blazing to a 2:59.91 at the 1987 NCAA championships. The star-studded team featured Steve Lewis as first leg, Young second, Danny Everett third, and Henry Thomas at anchor. “All those guys were state champs in high school,” Young recalled. “I was the bum of the squad, but I ran the fastest split. I was a walk-on and those guys were on full rides. You can believe I talked much trash after that race.”
Joining Young in the 400 hurdles at the 1988 Games in South Korea would be Edwin Moses and Andre Phillips. Moses – a quiet, dignified figure – was on a mission to earn a third Olympic gold medal after having won in 1976 and 1984. And everybody who was anybody agreed that he would have already owned three gold medals if not for the American boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow. For the past decade, Moses had thoroughly dominated the event, winning all major competitions and stringing together a winning streak of over 100 races. But he was no longer assumed to be unbeatable, as he had lost a race to fellow American Danny Harris in 1987, and won the 1987 World Championships by the narrowest of margins – two hundredths of a second – over Harris and West German Harald Schmid.
Phillips, a UCLA grad and former NCAA champion himself, still trained under Coach Smith. He had been unsuccessfully chasing down Moses for a good seven years. By 1988 he was getting closer, but Moses was still The Man, and Phillips was still just one of the many pursuers. At the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, five athletes ran under 48-flat, making it one of the fastest 400 hurdle races in history. Moses once again established his dominance with a 47.37 in the final. Phillips followed close behind in 47.58, and Young earned the third spot on the team with a new personal best of 47.72, edging out David Patrick and Danny Harris. That Young held off Harris – who many predicted would make the team and even win the gold medal – proved to experts that he had graduated from college and was ready to be a major player on the world stage.
In the final in Seoul, Young and Moses lined up beside each other in lanes two and three, respectively. Phillips was in six, and Amadou Dia Ba of Senegal in five. Phillips, unable to see his main rivals, took off like a jet. Moses was matching him stride for stride while Young and Ba battled for third. Phillips created the slightest bit of separation off the eighth hurdle, but it still looked like a customary strong finish from Moses would ensure a third Olympic gold for the 32-year-old master hurdler. But Phillips was in the zone. He widened his lead off hurdle nine, powering down the final straight-away, using the same 13-stride pattern between the hurdles that had become a trademark of Moses’ dominance. Coming off the final hurdle, Ba was coming on furiously. He too passed Moses and was storming ahead to catch Phillips. Phillips held off the charging Ba to win in a new Olympic record of 47.19. Moses, for the first time in his career, had to settle for the bronze. Young, in his first Olympics, finished fourth, but more importantly, laid the groundwork that would make him one of the favorites four years later.
Then came the victory lap. Young took part in it. Moses didn’t. In the British broadcast of the race, the commentators openly stated that Phillips and Young should have waited for Moses. It didn’t seem right. The torch wasn’t being properly passed. Instead, it looked like the two California boys were intentionally snubbing Moses, perhaps, at least in the case of Phillips, as a way of saying, “Ha! I finally beat your ass.” But Young says that wasn’t the case at all. He and Phillips were training partners, with the same coach, so naturally they gravitated toward each other.
“I was fourth, so I wasn’t planning on doing a victory lap,” Young said. “But Andre was looking around for me. Then he grabbed me to do a lap with him. At the time, I was just caught up in the race. But we were looking for Edwin. We couldn’t find ‘im. He finished that race and made a bee-line for the tunnel. He bounced. I don’t think he even did the post-race interview.”
Footage shows that, immediately after the race, a sorely dejected Moses unlaced his spiked shoes and took them off. He apparently entertained thoughts of joining Phillips, Young, and Ba in a victory lap. He started walking in their direction. But with his shoes already off and them so far ahead, he turned around and headed toward the tunnel. “The king is dead. Long live the king,” the British TV commentators said as Moses walked off the track, head down. It was obvious that he didn’t want to take part in anything joyous after his worst finish ever in an Olympic final. That it had been his fastest Olympic final didn’t matter. Edwin Moses didn’t run to finish third. He ran to win.
In the ’88 Olympic final, Andre Phillips (second from left) leads the way as Moses (far right) battles to stay close.
Ba of Senegal (far left) begins to close in as Young (third from left) holds onto fourth place.
The 1988 Olympic final marked the end of the Edwin Moses era, but not the beginning of the Andre Phillips era. Phillips too was a veteran heading into the downside of his career. In 1989 – a year that featured no major championships – it was Young who finished the year as the world’s #1 ranked 400m hurdler. After struggling with injuries in 1990 and ’91, Young was looking forward to another Olympic run in 1992.
By now, all the other big names in American hurdling were gone. Moses, Phillips, and Harris had all faded into the sunset. Young was a huge favorite to win the US Olympic Trials in New Orleans, and he did so, cruising throughout the race and crossing the line in a comfortable 47.89, ahead of David Patrick and McClinton Neal. His biggest competition at the Games would come from Winthrop Graham of Jamaica and Kris Akabusi of Great Britain.
In his preparation for the Games, Young decided that he would have to do something different with his stride pattern. Throughout his career he had been trying to mimic the 13-stride pattern that worked so well for Moses and also for Phillips. For Young, taking thirteen steps between hurdles in the early part of the race was causing him to get on top of hurdles. He was feeling crowded, like he didn’t have enough room to set his legs loose. As a result, he was feeling overly-fatigued by the end of races, causing the need to take fourteen steps between hurdles on the homestretch.
“Over the years,” Young said, “I was doing so much chopping that it was just killing me. If you look back at my early collegiate races – back in ’86, ’87 – you’ll see me chop hurdles three and four really bad. Those were my worst hurdles, and they would mess up my speed-endurance. I would fall apart by the eighth hurdle.”
So prior to the ’92 Games, he and Coach Smith set up a workout in which Young would clear the first five hurdles and Smith would time him at the 200 meter mark. “I’m running like 21.7, 21.5 on these 2’s. I’m flying. And I’m chopping at the third, fourth, and fifth hurdles. Then we tried to go under 6.0 to the first hurdle, and I was able to get that. Then I tried to twelve-step the fourth hurdle. I did it, and the time was the same, but the control was there. With thirteen, I was backing off hurdles three and four. That’s something I don’t wanna do – get my speed up and then back off. The key was to twelve-step hurdles four and five in practice and make the necessary adjustments. Some days we’d do 300s, and John would ask how I felt coming off the eighth hurdle. And I felt great. Even with no competition, I have my thirteen late in the race and I’m in a better position to attack the hurdle.”
When asked why he chose to twelve-step the fourth and fifth hurdles instead of the second and third, Young provided the following explanation: “The fastest part of the race is the backstretch – the fourth and fifth hurdles. You’re still picking up speed at hurdle one, hurdle two, hurdle three. By twelve-stepping four and five, the most important thing is I’m back on my dominant leg when I go back to thirteen.” And for Young his dominant leg was his left leg, which meant he could hug the curve and minimize the distance he ran by staying on that leg the rest of the way.
Young feels that “everybody who runs the 400 hurdles should be able to alternate. You should be able to get to the hurdle and make up your mind [as to which leg you want to lead with]. I was an athlete who chopped [my strides], and I know how detrimental it was for me. Bottom line is, you have to be prepared. Isn’t that what Smokey the Bear said? Yeah, be prepared like Smokey the Bear. You need to know that you’ll be able to get over the barrier. And coaches have to take each athlete individually. Most hurdlers don’t get crowded taking thirteen steps. But I did.”
Greatness, it can be argued, requires the courage to go beyond the known, to trust one’s inner vision and to base one’s actions on one’s intuitions, not on what others have done beforehand, no matter how great they were. By practicing the new stride pattern, Young had already paved the road toward greatness. Now it was just a matter of executing his bold strategy on Athletics’ largest stage – the Olympic Games. Based on the times he had been running in practice, he believed himself capable of running under 47 seconds. So instead of just hoping to do it, he told himself he would. He decided that 46.89 was the time he would shoot for, and he wrote that number on slips of paper, on the walls of his room, on the sides of his shoes. Everywhere. 46.89. He was going to shock the world.
But Barcelona, Spain didn’t even have Kevin Young on its radar screen. In the summer of 1992, it was all about the Dream Team. For the first time in history, the USA would be sending a team of professionals in the men’s basketball competition, and the squad was comprised of a dozen legends-in-their-own-time, including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. The whole concept of using an all-star team to represent the US began after the 1988 Olympics, when the US lost out in its quest for a gold medal for the first time since 1972 (which really didn’t count because the Russians cheated). Recognizing that the rest of the world had finally caught up to the US, and that many foreign countries used pro athletes on their international teams, the powers-that-be decided that sending a professional team was the next logical step.
For the NBA, this was a one-in-a-million opportunity to market the sport on a world-wide basis. For Nike, it was a one-in-a-million opportunity to market its shoes and apparel on a world-wide basis. Gold medal or no gold medal. American pride or not. So everywhere you went in Barcelona, it was Dream Team this, Dream Team that. “Billboards the size of buildings,” Young recalled. The Olympics had become a cash cow, a monstrous symbol of the age of capitalism and corporate gluttony.
But Young did not come to Barcelona as a tourist hoping to get autographs of basketball stars. He was a star in his own right. And after finishing fourth in ’88, and then again at the ’91 World Championships, he was determined to win the gold.
Heading into the finals, the favorites were still Young, Akabusi, and Graham. The American television commentators were predicting a victory for Graham, citing Young’s tendency to fall short of expectations in big international meets, his two NCAA championships notwithstanding. Young knew that he had something to prove – not just to the world, but to himself. No more chopping his strides. No more half-stepping. No more late-race clumsiness. He had to put it all together.
Young was in lane four. Graham in three, Akabusi in five. All the favorites in the middle of the track.
From the opening gun, Young swallowed the competition whole. There was never a moment when the result of the race was in doubt. He executed his strategy to perfection, clearing the first hurdle in nineteen strides, hurdles two and three in thirteen, hurdles four and five in twelve, and thirteen the rest of the way. He slammed the tenth barrier with the heel of his lead leg, but it didn’t matter. He was already several yards ahead of his nearest opponent. Five meters from the finish line he threw a fist in the air before crossing the line in a new Olympic and world record time of 46.78, more than a full tenth faster than his own goal of 46.89.
Young carries two American flags on his victory lap after
winning the gold and breaking the world record.
Young credits the work he did leading up to the meet for his ability to come through on this occasion. “Before, the shorter, quicker guys were running me down late in the race,” he said. “But I was able to establish my stride pattern during the summer. And I did it without hurting myself! So I just opened up and charged forward. I had never felt that strong after the eighth hurdle. I felt like I was running downhill. I hit the last hurdle and just kept going. Catch me if you can! But nobody was gonna catch me that day. And it didn’t happen overnight. I had planned and went through my strategy in my head over and over again. Because I was able to alternate, I was able to stay efficient. Just get up and get over. Get that knee up, use my instincts.”
Looking back on the race fifteen years later, the thrill is just as vivid for Young as it was when it happened. “I shut the Olympics down,” he said. “I shut it down. Everybody talkin’ about the dream team. Everybody wantin’ to be like Mike. I told folks I would do it, and they looked at me like I was outta my damn mind. But I’m grateful that I did it. I’m humble about it. I’m a humble cat. I don’t walk around with a chip on my shoulder, talkin’ about look at what I did back in ’92. After the Games, I didn’t try to market myself. I didn’t do any talk shows, anything like that. I was just glad to be an inspiration for my homeboys from Watts. That was genuine, and that was all I wanted.”
The following year, Young won the World Championships in Stuttgart in 47.18, defeating Graham and Zambia’s Samuel Matete – both of whom had defeated him earlier in the year. He earned himself another #1 world ranking with that performance, but, due to an accumulation of injuries, 1993 was the last year that he was able to perform at such a high level. His achievements from 1987-1993 were enough to earn him a place in the United States Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2006. The honor humbled him. “I really look at the predecessors of the event and give them a lot of credit. I couldn’t have done what I did if they hadn’t done their thing first. Rex Cawley, Ralph Mann, Edwin, Dre. I think about those guys. I take credit for my own personal accomplishments, but I’m grateful to them for theirs.”
One of the things that helps Young to put his accomplishments in their proper perspective is his relationship with Tommie Smith and John Carlos. “They have very intriguing stories,” Young said, “stories the general public doesn’t even know about. But they told me to help me become a better man. Listening to them is food for thought, food for my soul. There’s no way I can compare my era to theirs. You could imagine their whole mindset, what was on their hearts when they ran in Mexico City. John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King – all of ‘em assassinated. All heroes of the African-American people. There were students in the Olympic village getting shot and killed by the Mexican police. Bodies lying in the street. There was real shit going down, and they tried to make it like Smith and Carlos were pariahs for putting their fists up. And everybody bought into it. These guys sat down and shared that life with me, so I appreciate that, and everything they went through. I talk with those guys so I can pass on their stories. There’s no comparison to what happened to those fellas.”
Young is not bothered that he wasn’t able to cash in on his gold medal, pointing out that, “in Olympic sports, the window of opportunity is short to make yourself marketable. You have to really market yourself, and that’s an opportunity that I definitely missed at the time.”
Nor is he too upset over the speculation that he must’ve been a dirty athlete to break Moses’ record so emphatically. “Wherever I go in track and field,” he said, “I can walk in the room with my head held high because I don’t have any baggage. I kicked ass, did it clean, and that’s that. You hear people say these days that everybody’s on something, everybody’s taking something illegal. But personally, I can’t be skeptical. I did mine clean, so who am I to say that this person didn’t do it clean also? I don’t walk around like I got anything to hide. But you’re definitely gonna get the speculation. That comes with the territory.”
After graduating from UCLA in 1988, Young ran with the world-renowned Santa Monica Track Club, which featured superstar sprinters Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell, and Mike Marsh. “We got drug-tested all the time,” Young said. “I used to get tested so much in ’91 and ’92. But it’s part of the sport. If you’re clean, you got nothing to worry about. Around that time, they started doing out-of-competition testing, with no days’ notice. They were supposed to fed-ex you a letter the day before, but nine times out of ten they’d show up at the track and you’d get the fed-ex the same day. I got tested like once a month. It was a joke to me. I’d go get myself a beer and come back and pee enough for me and whoever else they wanted to test. Nowadays folks run into the woods, run out of the country, trying to hide.”
Young does not buy the argument that you have to cheat to stay competitive, or that there’s too much money to be lost staying clean in a sport where dirty athletes too often take home the prize money and ink the big endorsement contracts. “It’s only money,” he said. “If your integrity is not being threatened, you got nothing to lose. Get your ass in shape, do the best you can, and go home at the end of the day.”
To Young, the real villains are not the individual athletes who succumb to the temptation to cheat, but the companies that support them and “try to let them get away with shit.” He elaborated by noting that Nike often includes clauses in their contracts that give them the right to terminate it. “They talked about breaching mine because I didn’t run enough meets in Europe one year. I was injured.” Of course, an athlete who fears losing a precious contract that he or she trained for years to gain will feel compelled to do whatever it takes to keep it. Young never felt such compulsion. “When it comes to integrity, that’s something that I damn sure have. Corporate dealers can say what they want. They won’t get me to play their game.”
What bothers Young the most is that the shoe companies that sponsor athletes could be making a positive impact in local communities and neighborhoods if they so chose, but instead, they are guided by greed. He points out that his first pair of racing shoes was a pair of Asics, and that he wore Asics when he set the world record. Yet Asics expressed no desire to feature him in an ad.
“My cousin gave me my first pair of running spikes,” he said. “Asics. Tigers. Ironically, I ended up setting a world record in a pair of Asics. You would think that Asics would actually be like, Okay, there’s a connection. This cat ran in high school in Asics and ran the world record in Asics. Do a whole media campaign geared toward inner city kids, talking about how I came out of the inner city unscathed. But they just don’t get it. I mean, how much money does it take to put up a poster of an athlete who sets a world record? To buy an ad that says Kevin Young did the impossible? Give all these little knuckleheads, all these gang-bangers out here a little inspiration. Give them a reason to say, Hey, I can do it too. It’s the little things like that that bother me. I don’t give a damn about having a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard, but I want one on my momma’s block in Watts. But some corporate representative who isn’t even the person you need to be talking to says, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ Shoe companies. They don’t impact the neighborhood whatsoever, and I am not cool with that at all.”
Another thing that bothers Young is how the shoe and apparel companies exploit inner city youth by glorifying gangsterism. “At the end of the day,” he said, sighing, “it’s all about money. Growing up, I wanted to be like Dr. J. And it was all about his moves, his style. He was one of my role models. The Doc. But now the focus has been changed. Kids are growing up wanting to have tattoos like Iverson and diamonds in their ear like Lebron. It’s not even about their moves and all that. The NBA is a perfect example of a corporation that knows how to make its money. And now you got entertainers sellin’ shoes, don’t even play sports. Fifty Cent – Reebok’s making millions off him. So the message has been lost. With Dr. J, the connection was between the Converses and his spectacular moves. With Fifty Cent you’re drawing a connection between him and the gunshots and the shoes. The game has changed, but the accountability is the same.”
And to Young, that accountability extends to the African-American community. “You got people who ran [track] back in the day, got screwed by the shoe companies, and now they’re perpetuating the same crap to their athletes. That really bothers me. And it’s not a racial thing, because these are people of color perpetuating this mess. If you got treated badly by a shoe company in the ‘60s, and now you’re on their payroll, you might be making some money, but the companies are making a whole lot more. One thing I realize is, it’s all about relationships. When I was a freshman at UCLA, I used to see guys who worked for Adidas, Nike – shoe reps – they’d look at your feet first and then shake your hand. That always hit me the wrong way. As I got older, I saw they’re all just company men. It doesn’t matter where they’re from. They’re always product-driven.”
Young says that he is in no way a bitter ex-athlete and that he will never turn his back on track and field. “I don’t begrudge the sport. You can discount certain people, but not the sport itself. I don’t want anyone to look at me as the disgruntled, bitter black athlete. I may not always be in front of the camera, but I’m damn sure always in the trenches. One of the key things for former elite athletes is we have to stay on the radar. Show up at track meets, have conversations with people. For a young athlete who has been trying, it means so much. Whatever I can do to make an athlete feel better, I have to do that. And it doesn’t have to be my job. Our sport has been hit over the head so many times. We need to be more accountable. Track and field has such an array of talent – athletes who are on the cusp of greatness – then they find such a lack of support that they just give up. You find so many football players and basketball players who are former track athletes. You ask ‘em why they didn’t pursue track, and they tell you they weren’t getting any support. They couldn’t afford it.”
Young remembers how, growing up in Watts, so many kids with potential fell by the wayside. The coming of the Olympic Games to Los Angeles in 1984, for example, was not a momentous occasion for inner city youth. “I took a minimum wage job around that time,” he recalls. “I passed by the Coliseum on the way home, would hear all the noise in the stadium. But I couldn’t afford to go in.” Gang violence was another problem that the local authorities were determined to hide. “A group of three or more blacks was considered a gang. If three or more were hanging on the corner, that gave the LAPD the right to throw you to the ground. If you lived in a Crip neighborhood, you were considered a Crip. The whole world was coming to LA and we had this huge gang problem. Cats getting snatched up on trumped-up charges. After the Games cats are getting mysteriously released from LA County Jail.”
Young feels fortunate that he did not end up a victim of gang violence himself. “I spent my life in Watts trying not to be controversial, trying to keep to the straight and narrow.” He also feels fortunate that, while at UCLA, he had a mentor like Andre Phillips to help him deal with the stress of being a walk-on on a team full of stars. There were times at UCLA when he doubted his abilities, when he went to bed in tears, not knowing if it was worth sticking it out. But then he’d hear a story about someone in the old neighborhood getting shot to death, and he knew he would have to make it work. He couldn’t go back to Watts. “I’m glad that Andre was there for me,” he said. “He raced against Edwin numerous times, so he knew what it took to be successful. I share that 1992 victory with him. I give him all the credit for giving me so much confidence and information at that time. It’s so valuable. And watching him prepare for that ’88 race, and being a part of that race, was an inspiration too.”
Like Phillips passed the torch to him, Young feels it is important for former greats like himself to pass the torch to the next generation of track stars. When Kerron Clement, formerly of the University of Florida, broke Young’s NCAA meet record with a 47.56 at the national collegiate championships in 2005, Young was among the first to congratulate him. “I got his phone number from his coach, Mike Holloway, and gave him a call. I asked him if he had set a personal record, and I talked with Mike about a few things he could work on. Then coming up to the USA championships I remembered advice Andre had given me about running with the wind in my face. And sure enough, I imparted the same advice to Kerron and he went out and ran that 47.24.”
But Young does more than just attend an occasional track meet and give free advice. Currently residing in New York City, he has co-founded Phew! – a performance apparel company that trains young athletes to develop speed, regardless of their sport. Young doesn’t just seek out the strongest and the swiftest, but anyone who is committed to getting faster. “We instill self-confidence and discipline,” he said. “I know what it’s like to not be the best athlete. To be the best athlete you have to work your tail off. In order to be the best, you have to do the things that will make you the best. The most important thing is to be a better human being overall. There’s always gonna be somebody better athletically. We go to the younger athletes that nobody has even thought about and show them our points of execution and show them how to run correctly. It’s all about biomechanics, physiology. Real simple workouts. It helps the parents to be able to say ‘My son is training with the world record holder,’ and it goes even further when the parents see the results. And nowadays, with the onslaught of diabetes, obesity, kids just lying around, if you can get kids to be active, you’re providing a service. And there’s a huge market out there for that. Getting a kid who’s not on the radar onto the radar. Saving the parents money by getting the kids a scholarship. We’re trying to tap into a market that a lot of track athletes haven’t tapped into. We give a little more flair and substance than what’s already out there. We try to teach kids that you can have fun getting in shape. We’re not trying to re-create the wheel, we’re just trying to roll with it.”
Although Phew! is only a couple years old, the idea for the company began back in Young’s UCLA days. “We found that track and field athletes were in better shape than athletes in other major sports, being that our level of fitness and qualifications and times were pretty much off the meter in comparison to requirements in other sports. Football players always ask, ‘How fast do you run the 40 [yard dash]?’ Track athletes look at you like you’re crazy. The 40 is a football thing. It’s hand-timed. Our measurements are Olympic standards. That exceeds all levels of athletic competition. In baseball it’s the 60 – that’s their measuring stick. We found out that in sports, there are limitations, but the basic necessity is speed. And we can help you to get faster.”
A key aspect of Phew! will eventually be its apparel, as Young and his partner plan to open a performance apparel line in the spring of 2008. “The performance wear is key,” Young says, noting that affordable performance wear that doesn’t exploit youth is getting harder and harder to find. “I’m not trying to be like Nike, Reebok. I don’t want to be the cat looking down at anybody’s feet. I’m not gonna send the message to anybody’s kid to be a gangster. A lot of major companies are taking that marketing route. And they’re not just selling; they’re selling big numbers. Anywhere from 80 to 120 bucks for a pair of walking-around shoes. But that’s not me. I’m here in New York City to be a leader, not just a bitter ex-athlete. I’m here to be part of the solution, so that sports can be treated like it needs to be treated. Working with young athletes who participate in so many different sports – it keeps me grounded, and it keeps me in the loop. With this apparel company, I want to raise athletes’ self-esteem, and help them look fresh at the same time.”
Young’s past as a walk-on hurdler who became the best in the world relates directly to the work he does with young kids. “The key thing in the hurdles,” he said, “is that it’s a development event. You might not do a damn thing one year, and then things just click. If you train athletes in the mechanics of the event, then you add the speed and stamina, everything will mesh. You really can’t discount athletes who may not stand out immediately. It may take two or three years for an athlete to develop.”
And if it does take that long, one thing is for certain: Kevin Young will be there in the trenches with that athlete, offering his encouragement, imparting his expertise.
© 2007 Steve McGill
For video footage of Young’s 1992 Olympic race, as well as action photos of races throughout his career, check out his website: www.kevinyoung4678.com.