Dallas' Deja Young Won Gold in Rio and She's a Celebrity in Kansas, But Here No One Knows Her
Deja Young's right shoulder was dislocated at birth, and it makes her running style unusual.
Bucky’s Moonshine looked like the Fourth of July. Red, white and blue confetti, strands of beads, and patriotic streamers adorned the walls, tables and just about every other exposed surface of the Deep Ellum spot last Saturday night. Heaping portions of chicken and waffles, fried shrimp and jambalaya were passed dutifully around a long, packed rectangular table, making their way to rightful owners.
At one end of the table sat two grandparents dressed in matching red suits. At the opposite end, a pretty, long-haired 20-year-old from Mesquite named Deja Young, the reason for the celebration. Last month in Rio, Young won two Paralympic gold medals in the 100 and 200-meter sprint events. She’s now a celebrity in Kansas, where she attends college. Dallas loves itself a good hometown hero story. So why has it paid so little attention to Deja Young?
She’s been a fighter since birth, not that she’s had a choice. She was born with a dislocated right shoulder (her condition, brachial plexus, is usually referred to as a “deformity”), the result of a panicked doctor who pulled on her head too hard during delivery. It makes her running style unusual. Her right arm moves across her body, but her left arm stays straight, moving back and forth.
Still, Young stood out as an honor roll-athlete at Horn High School in Mesquite where she lettered in volleyball and track and field. Sometimes she broke records. But her path to becoming a collegiate athlete was plagued by resistance from Division 1 coaches who were reluctant to take her seriously because of her disability. (Young didn’t name names, but we can safely assume the list includes most large schools in Texas and its border states.)
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“They said, 'You can walk on but you’ll never get a scholarship.' They told me to fix my form or it wasn’t going to happen.” Well, it did happen, and Young proved naysayers wrong when she received a full track scholarship at Wichita State University in Kansas, where she’s now a junior.
She’s also faced obstacles which, while outside the realm of sports, had every possibility of derailing her athletic accomplishments. As recently as a few months ago, Young struggled with severe depression. When asked about the small tattoo on her wrist (“Just keep going,” it says in subtle cursive), she was forthcoming, speaking with the calm, matter-of-fact candor of someone much older than 20.
She got the tattoo because she needed the daily reminder. Later on in the evening, she’d walk onto a makeshift stage, where a Cajun band had just finished playing, and address a crowd of 50 or so friends, family members and coaches. “Just three, four months ago, I wanted to quit running, quit everything. But you helped me through. I wouldn’t be here without your support.”
Other than a story we ran in August (before the Paralympics), the only discernible attention Young has received from local media has consisted of a blurb in the Mesquite News and a sub-15-second mention by Meredith Land on KXAS-TV’s 10 p.m. newscast that was followed immediately by closing credits.
By contrast, gymnast Madison Kocian of Dallas, who won a gold medal in Rio just few weeks before Young, is all over the place. In September, she back-handspringed onto the field at Globe Life Park before throwing out the first pitch at a Rangers’ game. The crowd, literally, went wild.
Articles like D Magazine’s “What Madison Kocian Eats for Breakfast” and ESPN.com’s “Madison Kocian Has ‘Best Night Ever’ as She Finally Meets Carrie Underwood” have also popped up, in accordance with the media’s longstanding love affair with all things mainstream Olympics.
Young’s life in Kansas is a different story. When she arrived at Wichita's Dwight D. Eisenhower Airport from Rio, she was greeted like a Beatle: Cheerleaders and fellow athletes lined up at the bottom of the escalators, accompanied by several news crews, in anticipation of her return. “It’s hard getting to class on time,” she says. “A lot of people stop me for pictures and autographs.”
Last month, she met President Obama in Washington D.C. at an event honoring Team USA’s Olympic and Paralympic medalists. She met Simone Biles and Aly Raisman (“totally normal, down-to-earth girls” she says), but not Ryan Lochte. “He wasn’t invited.”
The Olympics/Paralympics attention disparity isn’t just a Dallas thing. Consider how little Paralympic gold medal winners are paid compared to their Olympic counterparts. Young received $5,000 per gold medal from the U.S. Olympic Committee, whereas her non-disabled counterparts received $25,000 per gold. For athletes like Young, who earn multiple medals, it certainly adds up.
“The other thing is, Olympic athletes, they’re automatically set with sponsorships once they win,” says Don Young, Young's father. “These [Paralympian] kids have to work so much harder to get to the same place. I saw a guy throw a bow and arrow 300 feet with his foot.” He also added that the KXAS-TV mini-segment happened only after repeated phone calls and emails to the station.
“It’s a slap in the face,” says Anthony Prior, Young’s speed coach since middle school and a pretty fast guy himself. (While attending Washington State University, the former NFL player posted a record-shattering 40-yard-dash time of 4.21 seconds.) “But we haven’t seen the last of Deja Young. Sponsorships will come. Because the world needs more people like Deja Young.”
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