OXFORD, Miss. – From fast food to sprinter stardom, Mississippi senior Isiah Young's rise is "a true Cinderella story."
At least Rebels coach Brian O'Neal believes it is.
The 23-year-old Young is the latest American sprinter to break the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters, clocking a 9.99 in the NCAA East preliminary meet. He is among the favorites to win the 100 and 200 at the NCAA championships this week in Eugene, Ore.
Young didn't run track in high school until his senior year, realizing he needed to participate in an extracurricular activity to meet a graduation requirement. So the Junction City, Kan., native cut his work hours at a local fast-food restaurant to run and decided to join the track team, figuring a few laps wouldn't be too bad.
"I picked the sprints over distance because I figured I'd have to run less," Young said with a grin. "I didn't put much thought into it."
Five years later, he's turned into one of the country's most promising young sprinters.
"It's one of the rare occurrences where natural talent meets someone who is motivated," O'Neal said. "I really don't have a theory behind it other than the good Lord. It's been amazing."
Young has been steadily improving since high school, where he showed glimpses of obvious potential but didn't place in the 100 at the Kansas state meet.
After that, it was two years at Allen County (Kan.) Community College where he quickly improved under coach Clinton Fletcher. Fletcher — now an assistant at Samford — said Young's personality has been the perfect match for his blue-collar story.
"From our first conversation, I knew this was a guy whose head was in the right place," Fletcher said. "He's a guy that wasn't afraid to work. There wasn't any job beneath him. He listened to me, watched film, watched others and got better every day. And the whole time he's stayed humble."
But his times really didn't rise into the nation's elite until he came to Ole Miss. He's won two straight SEC titles in the 200 meters and was voted the SEC's runner of the year by the league's coaches in May.
Young was a surprise qualifier in the 200 for the U.S. Olympic team in 2012, but didn't make the finals. Still, the experience left him with the confidence that he could compete with the world's best.
He nearly decided to start his professional career after competing in London but decided to return to Ole Miss for his senior season. He graduated in May with a degree in criminal justice.
"I talked to my pro friends, and they all told me to enjoy the last year of school," Young said. "I knew the risks with injuries, but to me it was worth the gamble. I've got my degree and I've had so much fun. I'm glad I did it."
Though Young is still a major factor in the 200 his focus has turned to the 100, and his times at that distance continue to drop.
O'Neal said sprinters tend to peak physically between 26 and 28 years old, so Young likely has a few more years to develop before the 2016 Olympics. At about 6-foot-1, Young is a little taller than most elite sprinters, and still harnessing the power in his stride.
"I think his future leans toward the 100," O'Neal said. "He's still got a lot of room to improve. He's just now grasping some of the finer details of the race. But I wouldn't bet against him in either race."
Young said his 9.99 at the NCAA East preliminaries came as a surprise.
"The crazy thing is my start wasn't great — it was just a regular start," Young said. "And then I pushed through, came across the line, and saw it was a 9.99. I've been waiting a long time for it — telling a lot of my friends that I thought I was ready for it — and I've been so close that it was nice to finally get it."
The immediate goal is trying to win an NCAA championship this week in Oregon. He has the nation's best qualifying time in the 100 and ranks third in the 200.
"We've run a fast time, but we haven't won anything yet," O'Neal said. "We just need to continue to string together positive races."
Young said he's ready. The past few weeks have been a glimpse into his future life as a professional athlete.
"I've loved college and I'm glad I came back, but I'm looking forward to being 100 percent dedicated to track," Young said. "I've got my degree. So now when I wake up, it's all about track. During the day, it's track. When I go to bed, it's track. I'm not split anymore."
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