John Young

– Paratriathlete and Motivational Speaker –

“The only real disability in life is a negative attitude”

With shorter arms and legs, it takes more strokes to swim or steps to run the same distance as an average-sized triathlete. I have done the calculations and determined with my 20-inch wheels, I need to pedal at least 35 percent more revolutions in order to go the same distance as someone using a 27-inch wheel.

This is the story of an amazing athlete and an advocate who has earned the well-deserved nickname of “The Hammer”. His story is the epitome of crushing through barriers to achieve a dream, and living his life with short-stature is so much about adapting a world that is not made for him.

John Young was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on Jan 31, 1966. He was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of disproportionate short stature; in other words, John is considered a dwarf or little person (LP) who stands at 4 feet 4 inches tall.

He attended the University of Waterloo where he received his Bachelor of Math in Mathematics Teaching. He began teaching in 1990 and married his wonderful wife Sue in 1995. They moved to Hong Kong in 1999 where he taught for 4 years, and his son Owen was born over there in 2002. He currently teaches at Pingree School north of Boston, MA where he now lives since 2003 teaching mathematics and have coached both basketball and swimming.

At only 2 weeks of age, John was put into foster care, John was put into foster care just after birth who went to live with a foster family. He always felt very lucky in that he wasn’t moved around from home to home and managed to stay with the same family throughout his entire childhood. He has three older sisters and two older brothers. When he got a little older his wonderful mother and amazing woman, Bernice Clarke, started back into taking in foster children again, but only in short-term cases. She never thought twice about taking in a child with dwarfism and from when John first started to walk, she made sure he was treated the same as her other children. Bernice, his mom, never allowed John to use his short-stature as an excuse for getting out of something all other kids were expected to do.

Many people influenced and motivated John during his life but Marilyn Fennell, who was his kindergarten teacher, changed the path of his life. Back in 1970, when John was 4, the school board was considering putting him into a special school because of his dwarfism but Marilyn advocated on his behalf to make sure he was put into a mainstream classroom assuring them he would best served in a classroom with regular students.

John didn’t take part in many sports besides swimming and a little bit of biking. He was not involved in any team sports besides a little bit of softball. Doctors in fact do not encourage people with dwarfism to run, due to it’s not good for their spine which narrows the spinal column which is a consequence of achondroplasia (the most common form of dwarfism). John always loved sports and did what he could to still be involved somehow. In High School, he managed a few different teams, including varsity football. All of his teachers, and particularly Pat Salvatore, Jim Hutton and Mary Jo Nandlal, seemed to take their lead from his mother by never allowing him to make excuses.

Young came to triathlon very late in life. About 11 years ago, he was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea and he weighed 195 lbs. Once he was prescribed a CPAP machine and started to get some proper rest, he got back into swimming again. Then in 2007, a student he teaches suggested they have a bike-to-school day, so John borrowed his wife’s bike and cycled 10 miles to the school and back again. He did a bit more cycling and then in the winter of 2009, someone sent him a video of Dick and Rick Hoyt doing an Ironman triathlon. After watching that emotional video, John decided he wanted to race a triathlon.

In July of 2009, at 43 years of age he raced his first sprint distance race. Young did three more that summer and was hooked into the sport. Since then he has raced more than 45 triathlons, 10 Half-Ironmans and 10 marathons, including the Boston Marathon four times, and three times the New York City Marathon. In doing so, he earned the nickname “The Hammer.” He realized an Ironman didn’t seem so impossible which consists on 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles on a bike and a full 26.2 miles marathon.

In 2016, Young decided to target Ironman Maryland, held the same year as his 50th birthday. Training for Young, and especially for a long-distance triathlon, takes far more effort since he covers a shorter distance with each stride. He adjusted his schedule to pair long runs on back-to-back days to give his body more rest, and added in extra time for long rides. He knew he was ready when he arrived in Maryland for the October race, where he found rainy and windy weather. His only fear? That the race would be cancelled. In the end, the swim was cancelled and the bike shortened.

On October 1, 2016, Young finished an Ironman triathlon in 14:21:34 hrs!, arriving at the finish line to see his wife, Sue, and his son, Owen, who hung the finisher’s medal around his neck. That night, John became the first person with dwarfism to finish an Ironman Triathlon.

The Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii is now John’s main target. He has received media coverage, as well as tremendous support throughout the triathlon community. Young hopes that Ironman, or NBC Sports will invite him to compete in the biggest stage of them all. John is a proud member of Achilles International and an active member of both the Boston and New York City chapters. Please support him at: John Young’s Fundraiser: Triachiles

Rudy in his own words

How does it feel to be an inspiration to others? Did you ever expect to become an inspiration?

It’s humbling and not something that I ever expected. My only hope is that other people with physical challenges stop listening to others who doubt them and start to believe themselves that they can do anything they put their minds to.  

Why are Triathlons so inspiring? What makes this sport so special around the world?

It is one of the only sports where age-groupers, para-athletes and professionals can all race together at the same time. There is such a wide-range of abilities, talents, and stories. There is something there for every athlete and spectator.

When did you start participating in triathlons? Where was your first competition?

My first race was in 2009 and the Mill City Sprint Triathlon. Prior to that race I had never done an open-water swim or ran farther than once around a track.

What motivates you in life?

My son Owen and my wife Sue are my greatest motivation. They support me in all I do and it’s great to see my son racing on his high school cross-country team. At his age, I never thought a person with dwarfism could be a runner/triathlete, and I’m glad to see him following in my footprints, even though he is MUCH FASTER than I am.

What would you say to other people with similar ambitions?

Stop wishing and hoping it will just happen on its own. You have to get out there and try. Don’t measure your results against other athletes. Just try and be better than you were yesterday and set your own personal goals.

Who inspires you? Why?

Team Hoyt is why I got started on this path. It’s still an honor to race with them each and every time. Bryan, Rick, and Dick are my good friends, along with many other members of Team Hoyt. Their motto of “YES YOU CAN” can apply to every facet of a person’s life.

How did you deal with obstacles in your life?

I try and follow my motto, “YOUR WILL HAS TO BE STRONGER THAN YOUR WON’T” If you go into a situation thinking you will fail, you are doomed from the start. I try and visualize success and find that a positive attitude carries me a long way.

What do you like most about Triathlons?

The variety inherent in the sport is what draws me in. Dealing with 3 sports (swim, bike, and run), transition and nutrition are a challenge. I also love that fact that the vast majority of the athletes are eager to help each other as opposed to compete against each other.

Mention major accomplishments in your life other than triathlons

I am proud of our son Owen and the young man he has become. I also thoroughly enjoy my job as a high school math teacher.

Do you support or represent any Non-Profit Organizations? 

I am a proud member of Achilles International and an active member of both the Boston and New York City chapters. Please support me at: John Young’s Fundraiser: Triachiles