By: Patrick Larson
When I met with Alex Young, I admittedly knew very little about the professional hammer throwing ecosystem. As a distance runner myself, I spend most of my time following running news and athletes. However, after speaking with Alex I gained a newfound appreciation for the nuances of field events and the unique challenges athletes like Alex face, both mentally and physically. His story is one of resilience, courage, and an unwavering belief in his abilities to perform at a high level while still being a positive influence on the people around him. This is the story of Alex Young.
In 2016, Alex Young solidified himself as one of the best hammer throwers in the nation after winning a Division I National Championship. This new level of success quickly put him on the short list of Olympic contenders heading into the 2016 Trials. After riding the high from being crowned a collegiate national champion, Alex came up well short of the Olympic team after finishing a disappointing 13th overall in the hammer throw at the Olympic Trials.
Despite being able to compete at the highest level of sport, there was mounting pressure that Alex started putting on himself.
“I was young and I put all my worth in athletics. After the 2016 Trials I was depressed. I knew I could have at least made that final so I came back and felt like a failure. You get on this big emotional high and when it's all over, you have only a few people reach out to you. Everyone wants to be part of the roller coaster until you get off the ride. That hit me hard.”
After taking some time post-Olympic Trials, Alex re-grouped and was determined to not only make the 2020 Olympics but also to never let himself feel the way he did after the 2016 Trials.
What ensued over the next four years heading into the 2021 Olympic Games were some incredible performances that put Alex at the top of the domestic hammer throwing scene and catapulted him onto the world stage as well. The performances in 2017 and 2018 helped Alex secure some grant money allowing him a limited amount of financial security to purely focus on training. But, with every solid stretch of performances, various obstacles would challenge Alex both mentally and physically.
“I ended up winning a silver medal at the NACAC senior championships that year. After that, I went over to Europe where they throw you into the pit of vipers. Mentally I was not prepared for that. I was getting smoked by dudes in Europe and dudes in the US. I gained a bunch of weight and was depressed. As soon as that valley became a high, that high was a low again.”
After struggling to perform on the European circuit and having difficulty in finding confidence in his throwing abilities, Alex was hit with yet another obstacle. In 2019, Alex’s coach was planning to move across the country to California where he would be taking a coaching job at Stanford.
“This came at a time where I was trying to do a Masters program, I’m depressed, and my coach is moving. I got all this stuff going on and I’m worried. I didn’t even know if I’d keep throwing.”
After making the decision to follow his coach to California, Alex found himself away from family, living in a house with nine other people, and generally unhappy. Despite all this, he found a way to dial in his training ahead of the 2019 USA championships in Des Moines. Leading up to the meet, he was throwing lifetime bests and putting himself in solid position to potentially make the 2019 World Championships team in Doha. But, on a day where nearly everyone in the field was throwing PBs, Alex was on the outside looking in after having a mediocre performance and finishing in 6th place.
Soon after the USA championships, Alex’s coach took a different job at the University of North Carolina putting Alex in a position to have to make another life altering decision just 9 months after moving to California. He ultimately moved to North Carolina where he started to find some semblance of peace and happiness being in a place where he had friends, aligned with the values of the community, and was closer to family. The clarity that came with being in North Carolina also allowed Alex the space to reflect on everything he had been through up to that point
“I was a little bit more open about the last couple years. I had been through the ringer.”
But, right when things were starting to look up for Alex, COVID-19 crashed the party and shut down all competitions and created immense uncertainty for Alex and other pro track athletes. Couple this with the fact that Alex had recently lost funding as a result of his below average performances in 2019 and all of a sudden the outlook heading into the 2020 Olympic Trials was very bleak.
“I was really struggling financially and had to work hard to find a job quick. I ended up working for Amazon and put throwing to the side because it was too stressful….People will forget about you so quickly. They will ride the wave of your success but the following year will totally forget anything you’ve done. Throwing became such a major stressor for me. It got to the point where I didn’t know if I wanted to do it anymore.”
All this stress came to a head when the Olympics were officially postponed and Alex stepped away from the hammer throw and started considering retirement because of the immense stress he felt. After a couple months away from the sport and trying to get his mind and body right, Alex came back to the hammer.
“I didn’t want to be in the public eye. I reminded myself that I do this for God and God alone.”
With this new awareness and mindfulness heading into the Olympic Trials, Alex was rewarded for staying committed to the sport with a trip to the Tokyo Olympics.
Is Alex Young done with the sport of Hammer after making the Olympic Games? Absolutely not. One thing was clear, he has big goals from a performance perspective and also the direction he wants to see the sport go in order to adequately support athlete’s mental health.
Alex sees an opportunity for track and field athletes to come together collectively, put aside their self-interest in the sport, and advocate on behalf of each other.
“You have these people in marginalized groups in the sport itself who feel forgotten by people in their own sport. I got really depressed because the sport became a business. A lot of us are like that. If we can just come together as a collective, the mental health aspect will be so much better and the financial situation will be better for all of us. But there is a self-preservation piece among athletes that prevent this."
It’s clear that Alex sees incredible promise in the future of the sport, but he doesn’t think it will progress unless there is a collective effort made across all events in track and field to stand up for the financial security and mental health of its athletes.
The last five years for Alex Young has brought him some of the highest highs but also incredible lows that have tested his resilience. Like many other professional track athletes, Alex struggled with the internal pressures he was placing on himself and often found himself susceptible to slipping back into an anxious or depressed state. Yet, through continued practice of mindfulness and positive self-talk, Alex fought through to the 2021 Olympics where he competed on the world’s greatest stage. While Alex acknowledges that he hasn’t perfected his mental health, he did offer some advice to other athletes who may find themselves succumbing to various pressures and stressors both internally and externally.
“Be patient with yourself and walk your path. You can never be upset with yourself and where you are if you aren’t comparing yourself to others. You are extraordinary no matter what route you take and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
So what’s next for Alex Young?
“I’m going to push through to Paris and I want to set the world on fire at the World Championships in Eugene.”
Alex Young is more than a thrower and will certainly be remembered as such when his throwing career comes to a close.