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Globe North Sports

There’s no ‘dis’ in his ability

John Young, a math teacher at the Pingree School, will compete in the Timberman Triathlon this weekend. John Young, a math teacher at the Pingree School, will compete in the Timberman Triathlon this weekend. (Sue Casey)
By Sapna Pathak
Globe Correspondent / August 20, 2009

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In preparing for the Timberman Triathlon, John Young’s path developed much like any other triathlete. He started swimming at age 4. He began cycling last year, biking the 12.5-mile route from his home in Salem to the Pingree School, in South Hamilton, where he is a mathematics teacher and varsity swim coach. He added running to his regimen earlier this year, hitting the pavement three or four times a week.

This weekend, Young’s mindset, competitive spirit, and dedication will match his fellow triathletes. His story is like no other.

At 4-foot-4, Young is a little person, the preferred term used to define any adult under 4-foot-10. His childhood, spent in Toronto, included various sports, including swimming, baseball, and hockey.

On Saturday, Young will travel to Gilford, N.H., to compete in the Timberman, his third triathlon this summer. Competing against average-sized adults is added motivation.

“My son is realizing he’s shorter than his friends, he’s not as fast as them, and that there will be things he’s not the same as them,’’ said Young. “I want him to see me finish. It’s different when you compete against other little people, but when it’s against average-sized people, there’s a need to understand it’s about finishing and competing, not setting records and winning medals.’’

Young has won medals.

In 1993, representing Canada at the World Dwarf Games, Young won two golds in his specialties: the 100-meter breaststroke and the 200-meter freestyle. Since then, the 43-year-old has dedicated his life to shattering stereotypes.

Young was born with achondroplasia, a congenital condition that affects the body’s ability to form cartilage. In essence, it hinders normal bone growth. Young’s parents are both of average size, as are his siblings.

Young’s wife, Sue Casey, also has achondroplasia, as does their 6-year-old son, Owen Young. Before Saturday’s race, Owen will find his father - as he’s done during Young’s two previous triathlons - wish him luck, and tell him he’s proud to see him compete.

The words mean more to Young than any first-place finish.

“To see and hear him cheering me on, that’s what keeps me going when I feel like I may have taken on too much,’’ said Young. “Society is becoming more understanding and he might not have to go through what I did growing up, but it’s still our job to show him there’s no such thing as ‘disabled,’ but ‘differently abled.’ He’s struggling with it because he’s learning he looks different, but I’d like to show him the intrinsic value of simply competing.’’

People with achondroplasia sometimes have spinal problems and they are more prone to joint pain. To avoid the strain caused by running, Young signed up for the aqua-bike portion of his first triathlon, the Mill City Triathlon, in Lowell, in July. He finished in 2 hours, 1 minute.

An encouraging conversation with Chris Powers, the athletic director at the Pingree School, prompted Young to consider incorporating running in his next triathlon, in Salem on Aug. 2.

The only little person competing, Young finished in 2:12, cycling faster than 21 athletes, swimming faster than one, and running faster than one.

“I started running a couple times a week. The more I did it, the less it hurt, but I know it’ll be the weakest part for me.’’

While Young serves as an example to both his son and his students, tomorrow night he will meet his own source of inspiration: Dick and Rick Hoyt, the team known for their participation in the Boston Marathon, where Dick Hoyt pushes his son’s wheelchair the daunting 26.2 miles.

“I’m excited to tell them they’ve inspired me and that I’m trying to send the same message they’ve been for years: that a different ability doesn’t mean a disability.’’