Sports

Modesto's Cy Young, the only American javelin thrower to win Olympic gold, dies at 89

Cy Young in January 2004.
Cy Young in January 2004.

Modesto's Cy Young, the only American javelin thrower to win a gold medal in the Olympics, died on Wednesday.

He was 89.

Young died at his home in Modesto of complications from vascular dementia, according to his family.

In 1952 at the Summer Games in Helsinki, the Modesto High graduate advanced to the finals by finishing sixth in qualifying. In the finals, his second toss 73.78 meters (a little over 242 feet) was enough to beat fellow countryman Bill Miller by about five feet.

(Click here to see the front page and jump page of The Bee's coverage of Young's gold medal)

The victory shocked the javelin world. In a story by The Associated Press on Young's victory, Leo H. Peterson wrote: "The javelin event had been considered the private property of the Finns ..."

Young, you won on his 24th birthday, said: "I still can't believe it. ... I was really strong. And this is my 24th birthday. I kind of thought winning would make a nice birthday present for myself."

Born July 23, 1928, in Modesto, Cy C. Young Jr. was a fourth-generation farmer. He grew up working on a farm and, according to family, was "among the first local farmers to grow Silver Queen corn in the year before it was a known commodity."

(See stories below on the life of Cy Young by former Bee reporters Ron Agostini and Michael G. Mooney)

Young wanted to play baseball at Modesto High, but asthma derailed those aspirations. Known for his throwing arm, he went on to compete in the javelin at Modesto Junior College before moving on to UCLA.

At Westwood, he won All-American honors and in 1952 was named Athlete of the Year for Southern California by the Helms Athletic Foundation in 1952.

Later that year he struck gold at Helsinki. He qualified for the Summer Games in Melbourne in 1956, but three days before the competition, he sprained his ankle. He finished out of medal contention.

Young is one of five Modestans to win a gold medal. The others are Emerson "Bud" Spencer in the 4x440-meter relay (1928), Wilbur "Moose: Thompson (shot put, 1948), Tisha Venturini-Hoch in soccer (1996) and women's-eight rower Erin Cafaro (2008 and '12).

A funeral service will be held Dec. 15 at 1 p.m. at St. Stanislaus Church, 1200 Maze Blvd., Modesto. Click here to see Mr. Young's obituary.

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Below is a story on Cy Young written by former Modesto Bee reporter Ron Agostini and published on January 18, 2004.

He stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall, as straight as a 2-by-4, like a Marine at attention.

Immense pride and confidence burst from every pore. He's lived his life right, he's certain, and he's got the evidence.

One wonders if there ever was a man more comfortable in his own skin than Cy Young.

"I'm having a wonderful time," he said this week, "doing what I always wanted to do."

Young, 75, leads the guest to a corner of his elegant ranch estate west of Modesto that he and wife Elizabeth have called home for more than four decades.

There, displayed among other photos and mementos, sits the prize – the Olympic gold medal, won on his 24th birthday with a javelin toss for the ages nearly 52 years ago in Helsinki, Finland.

In his mind, he can still hear the few Americans in the bleachers singing the national anthem while he stood atop the podium. He sacrificed everything for the gold – injuries, years of training, bucketloads of sweat, more anxiety than he would admit to, and ultimately, Young's most precious commodity.

His space.

"I just like to be left alone," he said. "There's nothing more important to a man than his privacy."

The most decorated athlete in Modesto history also might be the city's most misunderstood. He's not a recluse, as others have hinted because he's rarely seen in public.

Instead, he's pleasant, engaging and quick to spin stories from his distinguished past. It's just that he learned about himself long ago: He's a farmer first, a famous athlete second.

Young's idea of a perfect day is dawn-to-dusk toil on his 400-acre walnut and almond ranch, mixed in with hunting in the foothills to the west. The routine hasn't changed much over the years. Jenifer, his daughter from Lafayette, tends to the business details while Cy – no relation to the man for whom baseball's most prestigious pitching award is named – works the land.

The last Coca-Cola Modesto Relays he watched was six years ago, to see another Modesto Olympian, discus thrower Suzy Powell. He said he walked in by himself and sat in the corner of the bleachers. Being noticed wasn't a priority.

Young lends his expertise to local athletes on occasion ("No one knows more about throwing the javelin than me."), but he questions the work ethic of today's athlete. He also feels he intrudes on school coaches.

"I'm not bitter at all," he said. "I'm grateful."

In fact, it took all of Young's mental strength as a young man to leave the valley and attend UCLA. He already was armed, however, with a gift – tossing the javelin, taught to him by legendary coach Fred Earle at Modesto Junior College – and he soon parlayed it into greatness in Finland.

Four years later, at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia, he again would have medaled if not for an ankle injury three days before the competition. Still, his celebrity allowed him access to Hollywood's fast crowd.

John Wayne had set up a screen test for him, in fact, when he realized Tinsel Town wasn't for him.

He gathered all his sports belongings, dumped kerosene on them, and struck a match. His track and field career literally went up in flames. It was his way to, as the saying goes, turn the page. Today, he doesn't own a javelin.

"When I came home, I turned to farming and approached it just like it was the Olympics," he said. "I wanted to be the best farmer in the world."

Young's secret in the javelin was simple.

"I outworked them. That's what makes someone great – the hours and hours and hours they spend in dedication to their sport," he said. "I'm so proud that I beat the world without any help."

The word "help" vaults us from memories to the here and now.

Young never took a steroid or a performance-enhancing drug – yes, a few opponents tried it, even a half-century ago – but he wonders how he would have responded in today's drug-induced sports world.

Athletes from Barry Bonds to Bill Romanowski have testified during the ongoing inquiry of BALCO, the Burlingame laboratory which is suspected of illegal distribution of controlled substances, and San Francisco-area nutrition guru Victor Conte.

"Shall we legitimize it or not? That's what we're talking about. I say no," Young said. "But how can you really police it? You don't set law that you can't police.

"I never took a steroid. It's not fair. Then, of course, we weren't getting paid anything. Maybe if I was getting paid a million dollars or being set up for life ... I just loved the feeling of being the best."

Young keeps a low profile these days for his own peace of mind, not because he shuns the public.

That said, the 2000 Olympic Trials in Sacramento caught his eye. He would have gone but couldn't find tickets.

"I'd like to go this year," he said, in reference to the Trials' return to the state capital, "especially the day of the javelin event."

See, the competition, not the glory, always drove Young. It also served him well on the ranch, his life passion. He saved the important things about his Olympic dream. And burned the rest.

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Below is a story on Cy Young written by former Modesto Bee reporter Mike Mooney and published on July 14, 1996.

Cy Young Jr. is not one to rest on his laurels. It's just not in him.

Young, the only American man to win a gold medal in the Olympic javelin competition, would rather talk about his family and 400-acre walnut and almond farm west of Modesto than the remarkable athletic feat he achieved 44 years ago this month before a worldwide audience in Helsinki, Finland.

"You're close to God and nature in the field," he said. "I love everything about farming – the hard work, eating the dust, feeling the heat. I just love it. I really do."

Although his 68th birthday is just days away, Young (no relation to the pitcher Cy Young) still cuts an impressive figure. He holds his powerful, 6-foot-5-inch frame ramrod straight. His step is light and graceful without a hint of clumsiness, despite the size 15 shoes.

The eyes remain sharp and focused. The only obvious concessions to age are the crevices, deepened by years of exposure to the relentless valley sun, that line his face, and the shock of white hair atop his head.

"I feel as good today," Young declared, "as I did 20 years ago."

When he decided to walk away from competitive athletics – and a possible movie career (John Wayne had arranged a screen test for the handsome 28-year-old country boy) – after the 1956 Olympic Games, Young never looked back. The end was dramatic.

"I got all my stuff together," he said, "shoes, sweat clothes, javelins – everything. I piled it up, poured kerosene over it and put a match to it. I had given eight years to (mastering the javelin); it was time to get on with my life."

After his surprising gold medal victory in 1952, Young was determined to show the world of track and field that his performance was no fluke.

He set his sights on the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia, and a second gold medal. But it was not to be. Young severely sprained his ankle during a preliminary round and was unable to compete in the finals of the javelin throw.

Egil Danielsen of Norway eventually won the gold medal with an impressive heave of 281 feet, 2 inches. Danielsen's mammoth toss eclipsed Young's Olympic record of 242 feet, one-half inch – set four years earlier in Helsinki – by more than 39 feet.

Young said he was capable of hitting the 280-foot mark himself, and perhaps could have thrown as far as 300 feet, had he not been injured.

"That's no brag," he said. "I knew myself and what I could do. I was in my prime. After I rolled my ankle, I threw (the javelin) 250 feet. I broke my own Olympic record by 8 feet and I was practically standing still."

But the sprained ankle worsened, making it impossible for Young to get a running start – which is crucial for a javelin thrower. Young knows there's no going back. Still, when he does allow himself the luxury of revisiting those days, the first thing that comes to mind is the disappointment of 1956 – not the triumph of 1952.

"I always think of the (gold medal) I lost," he said, "not the one I won."

But don't get the wrong idea. Young is not bitter over his lost opportunity. He proved himself in 1952.

"It's like climbing a ladder," he said, "with each step up you get a little closer to your goal. When you get to the top step and win the gold medal, you don't have to prove yourself again. You can relax about life. (Winning the gold medal) has given me peace of mind."

But when Young was growing up in Depression-era Modesto, he dreamed of playing professional baseball, not winning gold medals at the Olympics.

Blessed with a strong throwing arm, like his father, Cy Young Sr., he wanted to be a baseball pitcher but, also like his father, never got the chance.

Young suffered with asthma as a child and, subsequently, was not allowed to play high school baseball or other sports. His lack of high school experience became an issue when he decided to try out for the Modesto Junior College baseball team.

Given the large number of experienced players, and the relatively few positions available on the roster, Young said the coach turned him away without even giving him a look.

Baseball's loss turned out to be track and field's gain.

A star is born Legendary MJC coach Fred Earle asked Young if he ever considered throwing the javelin. "What is it?" Young replied.

Earle, who coached football, tennis, basketball and track at MJC, gave Young a javelin, told him to take it home and practice throwing it. Young said he practiced for a couple of days in his dad's alfalfa field and then returned to MJC to audition for Earle.

"I threw it 150 feet standing still," he said. "Coach Earle said I was on the team."

After two years at MJC, Young moved to the University of California at Los Angeles, where he enjoyed even more success. While at the Southern California campus, Young began to think seriously about trying to crack the Olympic team. He graduated from UCLA in 1951 but continued to train at the Los Angeles Athletic Club with an eye toward the XV Olympiad.

At first, Young said, just making the U.S. Olympic team was enough. Once he was a member, however, he set his sights on nothing less than a gold medal. By the time the games opened in Helsinki, Young was ranked fourth in the world but not considered a serious medal contender.

Toivo Hyytiainen of Finland, who would end up with the bronze medal, was the favorite.

While going to school and training in Southern California, Young hobnobbed with movie stars, as well as some of the nation's best athletes. He met John Wayne and befriended a couple of Hollywood up-and-comers, James Dean and Clint Eastwood.

"I was Jimmy Dean's pledge master," Young said. "He pledged my fraternity, Sigma Nu. He was a decent athlete."

Eastwood was a student at Long Beach State when Young started teaching the would-be actor and future mayor of Carmel the finer points of javelin throwing.

It was during this time that Young's celebrity was perhaps at its zenith. He was named Southern California's Athlete of the Year for 1952, a competition that included the region's professional athletes as well, and missed winning the Sullivan Award by a single vote.

Wayne told him he ought to consider a career in the movies and eventually arranged for a screen test. But stardom was not high on Young's list of priorities

"I was driving down Wilshire Boulevard and about halfway to the (movie) studio," he said, "when I started thinking, "What am I doing? I'm not an actor; I'm a farmer.' I made a U-turn and never went back. I didn't want to waste everybody's time."

The good earth After returning to the family farm, Young withdrew more and more. His celebrity status kept getting in the way – people either were picking fights with him or trying to get him to speak at their lunch meetings.

But a farmer just doesn't have time to be a celebrity, too.

"I decided to keep myself away from society," Young said. "I just wanted people to forget about me." The years rolled by and Young got his wish – for the most part. His celebrity gets rediscovered only every four years or so, when another Olympic competition rolls around.

Even so, Young still declines most requests for interview and speaking engagements. You can't spend all your time talking when there are orchards to tend, tractors to repair and a farm to run. "If I had another hundred years to live," he said, "I'd do the same thing ... farm.

"I love it so much."

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