Wonder Women: Deja Young

Content warning: This column discusses suicide, anxiety and depression.

It’s no secret that pursuing excellence in any field requires one to sacrifice, be diligent and learn to enjoy the process. That last one is especially important, considering that behind every athlete’s moment of glory is a hard-fought journey that takes both a physical and mental toll. But how does one cope when the very thing that brings them joy becomes a source of stress? Paralympic track star Deja Young’s story is one incredible example of overcoming adversity, prioritizing mental health and rediscovering joy in competition.    

Young was born with brachial plexus, a condition that affects mobility in her right shoulder. She competed in volleyball, softball and track all through high school. Impressive results reflect her dedication to track; while in high school, she ranked No. 12 in Texas for the 200-meter dash. When it came to college, she ultimately set aside team sports when she realized her love for speed. 

It was at Wichita State University where she learned that she was eligible to compete in Paralympic track and field. Immediately, Young made an impact­­­­ in Paralympic competition –– winning gold in the 100-meter dash and silver in the 200 at the 2015 World Para Athletics Championships. With a world championship under her belt, she was then ready to make her Paralympic debut in Rio.   

Unbeknownst to the public at the time, Young was diagnosed with anxiety and depression during the months leading up to the games. The increasing pressure to succeed in addition to a demanding academic and training schedule caused Young, who was a sophomore in college at the time, to feel like she was losing control of her life. Months before the 2016 Paralympics, Young survived an attempted suicide.

After seeking professional help, Young quickly returned to competition. She made her Rio debut as planned and left with two gold medals for the 100- and 200-meter dashes –– a true testament to her mental fortitude and remarkable athleticism. Shortly after her success in Rio, a car accident tested her resilience for a second time.

She fought hard for her recovery, realizing that the first step was learning to communicate her emotional state with her coaches and loved ones. Young credits these frequent mental health checks with helping her rediscover joy in the sport that she loves.  

Young’s recent gold in the 200 and silver in the 100 at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships serve as a reminder of both the strength she demonstrated when she sought help and the support she received from her loved ones. Her story is powerful, not only because it is deeply moving, but because she hopes that by sharing it, she can help other people struggling with their mental health.

When Young defends her titles in Tokyo, it’ll be with new vigor –– each step a nod to the hardships she has overcome and her recommitment to wellness. Considering NBC Universal’s plans to provide a historic 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage this summer, Young’s second Paralympic run is one you won’t want to miss.


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