Viewpoint Fairfield’s Young sees success clearly
Anthony Bruno was standing poolside at the ECAC women’s winter championships when Colleen Young started to pull away in the 200-yard breastsroke.
“So I look over the at the ref,” said Bruno, the women’s swim coach at Fairfield. “And I say, ‘Hey, that girl’s blind.’ He goes, ‘What?’ I’m like, ‘Serious. Can’t see the wall.’
“Well, every transition out of the wall was unbelievable.”
The official was left a little stunned.
Young was left amused.
“I wouldn’t say I’m good at never hitting the wall,” she said. “Like with the backstroke when I can’t see the flags, I may run into it. But, hey, everyone has done that once in their life.”
Colleen Young sets para-swimming world records in a world she can barely see. A junior communications major, Young also helps lead the Fairfield women capture team events like the ECAC on Dec. 2 with a sparkling 2:19.61 in the 200 breaststroke.
Young moves between both worlds easily, well, not always that easily. She had a nasty fight with a virus in the two weeks after the ECAC leading into the U.S. Para National Championships in Tucson, Arizona. She had all the symptoms of the flu.
“Then I got really bad pressure in the lower part of my throat and upper chest,” Young said. “So I went to urgent care. It was a bad case of bronchitis. In a two-week time frame, I only swam four-five times.”
How did you feel going to Arizona?
“Oh, horrible,” Young said. “But it was our nationals. You couldn’t not go. And it’s good to see everyone again.”
Feeling, oh, horrible, on Dec. 16, Young set the SB13 200-meter long course breaststroke world record with a 2:50.75. She wasn’t overwhelmed by her performance. In a non-para event, she swam a 2:43.
Young was born with albinism, a genetic disorder where her body does not produce the pigment melanin that give color to hair, eyes and skin. Her hair, her eyebrows, her eyelashes are white. Young also was born with a disarming honesty and humor and, yeah, mischievous streak.
“I’ll make jokes about being blind sometimes,” Young said. “And if I first meet people, they’re like, ‘Oh.’ They’re a little hesitant.”
Young said her uncorrected vision is 20/800 in the left eye and 20/650 in the right. Even with corrected glasses it’s 20/250, still legally blind. She is extremely light sensitive.
“Albinism is recessive,” Young said. “My brother is not an albino. It’s kind of random. And, for me, I feel like I almost don’t have an iris. I don’t have any color, clear. So you can see straight back into my retina.”
Young also has nystagmus, a condition in which the eyes make repetitive, uncontrolled movements.
“The doctor said my eyes are always searching for a clear picture,” she said, “but that just won’t happen.”
There is a clear picture in a larger, inspiring sense. Young already has been to two Paralympics. At 14, she was the youngest member of the U.S. team in 2012 in London. In 2016 in Rio, Young won the bronze medal in the SB13 100 breaststroke. The girl who can’t see helps us see plenty about determination and understanding the world of disabilities.
“I don’t know any other way of seeing,” said Young, who is back home in St. Louis for the Christmas holidays. “Obviously, I can’t do things everyone else can do. I can’t drive or anything. But my parents were always so great about making sure I did everything I could. Just because I’m legally blind, it doesn’t mean I couldn’t do different things.”
She played the viola. She played a lot of sports, including golf. Even softball.
“Yeah, I shouldn’t have been out there,” Young said with a laugh. “The ball hit me in the head. After the game, I’m like ‘I’m done.’” I don’t think I ever had that straight up talk with my parents. They never sat me down said, hey, you’re blind. This has always been my world.
“I had big fonts at school and it would make my textbooks twice as big. I always thought I was different, but I didn’t see it as something that held me back.”
In 2012 she swam in the same London pool where Missy Franklin broke world records and Michael Phelps did immortal things. In Rio, she swam in the same pool where Katie Ledecky dominated. There is something powerful in this, of course, but Young also points to Stanford swimmers who have been Olympians.
“They’re doing the same things in college we’re doing, only they’re faster,” Young said. “America is 50 years behind when it comes to the disabled — not rights — but in some of the treatment. A lot of college coaches don’t want to bring on someone who’s disabled. They don’t understand we work just as hard, just a little differently sometimes.”
Young points to Loyola (Md.) coach Brian Loeffler as a source of great inspiration for para swimmers.
“He has created sort of a hub at Loyola, he has been amazing,” Young said. “College athletes with disabilities, he understands. He’ll take a chance on them. That’s what Tony is doing now.”
Bruno replaced Janelle Atkinson, who had recruited Young, in the spring of 2017. When Young first toured the Fairfield campus, she loved it was more manageable than a sprawling university. She has come to admire the commitment by Bruno, who also coaches her at Paralympic events.
“He wasn’t scared,” Young said. “He jumped into the whole Paralympic movement.
“I do all the same sets as everyone on my team at Fairfield. We lift. I have 11 practices a week. A lot of people don’t realize it. I think they think (para athletes) don’t work as hard. That’s not true at all. If I’m goofing off Tony will yell at me just like anyone else.”
Bruno says Young navigates the Fairfield campus as if she has a sixth sense.
“New places, I don’t know where I’m going at all,” Young said. “I’ll kind of follow. Once I get a path and my bearings, I’m good.”
“She never makes it about not being able to see,” Bruno said. “She keeps it light herself. She wants to do what everybody else is doing. I think that’s why she is so successful. She likes to be independent. But the community aspect is also really so important to her when she goes to the para meets.”
Young is ranked first in the MAAC in the 200 breaststroke and 200 individual medley and second in the 100 breaststroke. That’s one world. A dream of a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics is another.
“My friends in the Paralympics like to say it’s freeing when you’re in the water,” Young said. “When I’m in the pool, I don’t think about my blindness. You’re on the same playing field as others. I’m like anyone else.”
“There will be little moments where you’re like, Colleen, you botched that turn a little bit,” Bruno said. “She’ll kind of look at me and go, ‘You know I can’t see the wall right?’ Sometimes it’s a little easy to forget.”
So how does she navigate with such nuance?
“If I’m in a pool I’m familiar with it’s a lot easier for me with the walls,” Young said. “You know that dark T on the bottom of the pool (as you approach the wall)? I try to follow that. Lane ropes help. If I hit one, it helps me stay in a straight line. I won’t fly out to the middle of the pool. We wouldn’t want that.”