May 26, 2011

Larry Young: He’s Walking His Way Through College

W. Merle Hill

By W. Merle Hill, president, Columbia College, 1965-77

Larry Young, Olympic bronze medal winner in the  50 kilometer walk at Mexico City in 1968, has updated the 1930’s Depression song “I’m working my way through college to gain a bit of knowledge” as a student at little Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri.  Recipient of a race walking athletic scholarship, Young, the only United States medal winner in Olympic race walking competition, is combining his race walking and art talents in a rare sports-scholarship double.

Young became Columbia College’s second race walker when he came to the school in January 1971, following Paul Ide by one semester.  Since entering college as a 28 year old freshman art major, Young has compiled an enviable record.  A Dean’s List scholar for three consecutive semesters, he has also won nine national AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] walking titles since returning to serious training and competition only 13 months ago.

In twenty-two major national or regional AAU races, Young has nineteen firsts, one third, and two fourths, an unparalleled record of consistency, speed, and endurance.  The third and one fourth were attained while recovering from an illness and the other fourth was in the National 20 kilometer in 1971, then a short race for this distance phenomenon. 

In good shape once again for the 1972 National AAU 20 kilometer in late April however, Young won handily.

Then on May 7 he raced to a record 1:30:09.9 in the Missouri Cup Race, a 20 kilometer qualifier for the Olympic Trials.

In compiling his fantastic skein of victories, artist Young won the shortest AAU-sponsored race walk, the 2-mile at the Outdoor Nationals in Eugene, OR, last June, and the longest race in the Western Hemisphere, the 100 mile, twenty-four hour Centurion Race in Columbia, Missouri.

In the 100-mile torture test, Young broke Larry O’Neil’s American record for 100 miles by over an hour and fifteen minutes.  Due to a heavy rain and muddy track, however, Young’s time of 18:07:12 was set in the University of Missouri’s Fieldhouse on an 8-lap-per-mile dirt track; and, consequently, sexagenarian O’Neil’s outdoor record still stands. 

A late starter in race walking, Young did not compete in his first race walk until 1965.  A half-miler and miler in high school, Young’s interest in race walking was the result of witnessing some Los Angeles all-comer meets. 

Just out of the Navy, Young’s first official report was an 8:30 mile, good for a third place finish.  With several months of training behind him, Young was able to get down to a seven-minute mile by the end of the summer.
His first serious competition was at the Los Angeles Indoor Invitational in January of 1966.  He had trained hardly at all for over four months when an invitation arrived only eighteen days before the race.  A crash training program resulted in a 7:30 mile and a dead-last finish.

This poor result got Young started on a rigorous training program, and later in the year, he got his first international competition in the Commonwealth meet in Los Angeles.   However, his style was questionable, and he was disqualified both in the 20 kilometer and the 3,000 meter events.  He felt he received a “raw deal” until he saw films of the races and “could clearly see that I was off the ground at times and my form was pretty bad.”

Since he did not want to have the reputation of “being a runner”, Young then went through a six-month period of “just kind of forgetting how I was doing in racing” working purely on his style.  He worked mostly on distance and concentrated on form and technique.  He observed others’ styles by looking at films and took an eclectic approach in developing his own smooth, fluid and powerful style.

Watching films and other walkers has been invaluable to Larry, but his best instruction comes from his coach and father.  Bob Young of Sibley, Missouri, became a walker after Larry had won many races and he, too, has become a stylist in the sport, as has uncle Fred Young from Independence.  Until Larry’s return to Missouri in the fall of 1970, most of the records in the Missouri Valley Associations were Bob Young’s; but now son has replaced father in the record books. 

Young won his first national championship in the 50 kilometer in Chicago, in 1966.  After winning this event, he began training seriously and looked forward to the 1967 Pan-American Games.  He won the Pan-Am 50 kilometer and then started his drive for the 1968 Olympic team.  He concentrated mostly on distance work, “good hard ten-milers” which became the basis for his training program – at an eight-minute mile pace or lower.

This hard training enabled Larry to reach his peak at the Lake Tahoe Olympic training camp.  There he averaged eight-minute miles for twenty miles, the first time any walker had done this at altitude.
In Mexico City the 50 kilometer race was to start in the heat of early afternoon, but Young knew that it cooled off markedly later in the afternoon and planned his race strategy to conform with the temperature.  His plan was to “hit 20 kilos at about 1:46 and to make the latter part of the race the strongest part.”  He hit the 20- kilometer mark at 1:46 and “started seeing a few guys coming back.”  At 35 kilos he started passing Russians and East Germans and England’s Nihill and knew that his strategy paid off.  He was third at 40 kilometers and remained there for the rest of the race. 

As Larry entered the Estadel Olympico in Mexico City, he slowed for an instant at the top of a ramp that led to the track below.  He could not resist a quick glance over his shoulder. “I’ll never forget that feeling,” says Young.  “I looked around, and there was no one in sight.  I was overwhelmed.  Tears came to my eyes.  I remember thinking ‘Wow! I’ve done it, I’ve done it.’”

Ahead of Young were East Germany’s Hohne and Hungary’s Kiss, finishing first and second in the 31-miles 124-yards race.  Young’s third place finish was the highest ever by an American walker, his bronze medal the pinnacle of a career started only three years earlier. 

Young more or less “retired” after the Olympics and did not do much walking.  In July 1970, discouraged by smog and injuries which had hampered what training he did undertake, he decided to return to Missouri and open a metal sculpture studio in his father’s garage.  He was still not training too hard when the president of Columbia College, himself a race walking devotee and a member-at-large to the National Race Walking Committee, talked with him about attending College on a race walking scholarship.  Young had written several schools and inquired about such a scholarship, but no one wanted “to waste a scholarship on a walker.”

Since entering college in January 1971, Young’s comeback has been phenomenal.  After dropping out of sight following his 1968 Olympic achievement, the 1968 bronze medalist is clearly visible again and has regained the position of the number one walker in the United States.  The next stop is Munich, 1972.
Larry Young’s latest accomplishment was another convincing win in a 20 kilometer race walk.  On May 13 in Sharon, Pennsylvania, he won the Western Hemisphere Championship in a time of 1:31:59.0, to lead the USA team to a sweep of the top four places in that event.

This article originally appeared in the June 1972 issue of Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, the official organ of the AAU.