July 12, 2012
By Herb Benenson
In 2009, Ryan Young set a school record in the javelin with a throw of 250 feet, 10 inches. A year later, he could barely throw a stick of gum across a room.
Yet despite his recent predicament, a future spot on a U.S. Olympic team is a clear and attainable goal. Major elbow surgery followed by months of rehab and training have returned the Cal graduate to the elite list of javelin throwers.
In the spring of 2010, Young seemed primed for an outstanding senior season. He was a year removed from his record effort and was regularly exceeding 260 feet in practice. With the Pac-10 Championships slated for Cal's Edwards Stadium in May, he fully expected to capture a league title on his home track.
But one fateful throw brought his dreams to an abrupt halt.
Perhaps the most technical of all track & field events, success in the javelin doesn't rely on just one throwing motion; there are many different methods and it's up to each individual to select the best personal style. However, one rule fits all - keep the elbow high. On a practice day in March, Young, unfortunately, let his elbow slip.
"My elbow had been bugging me for a little while but not during throwing, more during lifting and training," Young said. "It would be super sore when I'd wake up in the mornings. I knew there was something not right. It didn't bother me throwing and it wasn't sore after throwing, so I thought I'd just train through. Throwing the javelin, you have to. You can't stop every time you get dinged up."
This time, Young knew it was serious. He took about a month off to let his elbow calm down and slowly began to return to practice, starting with some short throws and building up to longer ones.
"As soon as we got confident to throw one more, I felt it pop again," Young recalled. "Right away, I knew my season was done."
Not wanting to miss out on the Pac-10 meet entirely, Young shifted his energies to the discus and finished 14th in the conference with a best of 153-2. The winning mark in the javelin was 253-4, which would have been well within reach had Young remained healthy.
"It was hard to sit there and watch other people throw on my home track my senior year," Young said. "Up to that point, I thought I could win the Pac-10 title. That's what I wanted. I felt like that was my year, and then this happened. I didn't get the opportunity."
Instead, Young soon underwent Tommy John surgery, a procedure more common for baseball pitchers. By August, he was visiting the Haas Pavilion training room twice a day and putting in additional time in the weight room. Eventually, he added sessions to build explosiveness in his legs at a strength gym in San Ramon that counts several of the top weightlifters in the country among its members.
By the following spring, Young believed he was ready to compete again and circled Cal's annual Brutus Hamilton Invitational as his debut meet. All he did was break the meet record with a throw of 247-2, just a little over a meter off his PR, and suddenly, he knew he was back.
"I hadn't thrown that far in training yet, but it didn't surprise me because I knew what I was capable of throwing," Young said. "To come out and have my first throw be that far, I was a little surprised because it was from a short approach, it was early in the year and I was coming off surgery. I had no idea what to expect in a meet. I was ecstatic with it."
Young continued to improve and by late June found himself at the USA Championships in Eugene, Ore. At the meet, he uncorked a throw of 254-8 on his fifth attempt. The result put him in fourth place at the end of the competition, less than two feet behind the winner. Before he left Hayward Field, Young had secured a contract offer from Nike, which allowed him to continue training and travel to several competitive meets in Europe.
Young began his overseas tour in Sweden before embarking on a 30-hour train ride through Berlin to a competition in Amsterdam. Still suffering the effects of the trip, Young struggled on his first couple of throws at the meet. But on his third attempt, he recorded a mark of 262-1, which surpassed the Olympic "B" standard.
"I can't complain from where I was," Young said. "I had a great season coming back from injury. It made me appreciate the process of training. I have a much better understanding of how training works and how success and failures ultimately lead to where I want to go, which is to make the Olympic team."
Tony Sandoval, Cal's director of track & field, believes Young also benefited from working as a volunteer coach with some of the Bears' young throwers, giving him a different perspective and an even greater appreciation of the technicality of the event.
Even as a recent college graduate, Young is, well, young in the javelin. Last year's USA champion, Mike Hazle, was 32 when he claimed the crown, and it is common to see javelin throwers remain competitive into their late 30s or early 40s.
"In the grand scheme of things, he's a neophyte," Sandoval said. "The javelin is an old man's event because it's so technical. I see a career for him 8-10 years down the road. He's going to get better. There isn't a javelin thrower that hasn't had some type of shoulder or elbow injury along the way. It's kind of a rite of passage."
Young also understands how much more he has to learn in the sport, especially in the refinement of his technique. All the elements necessary to excel at the javelin - footwork, tempo, strength, reaction time, film work - take time to master. Young estimates he can spend a solid 8-10 hours per day training to perfect his throws, with the ultimate objective to represent the United States at the Olympic Games.
"To make the team would mean a lot," Young said. "It's hard to put it in terms other than that. All the hard work, all the pain, all the time spent in the training room. The last seven years that I've been down here at Cal have been devoted to the javelin. I expect a lot out of myself, whether other people expect me to be on the team or not. People know that I have to the potential to throw really far. I know I can do it."
Regrettably, Young did not have his best day of throwing at the 2012 Olympic Trials in late June, finishing 19th in the field with a best mark of 229-9 on a rain-filled afternoon. But at the age of 25, he likely has several more opportunities of ahead of him to earn a place on the U.S. team.
That's a far cry from just trying to throw a simple stick of gum across a room.