Photo Credit: Gatorade
"I think after that (loss last year), coming into this year I had a goal of wanting to be undefeated."
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Years from now, when Nico Young looks back on the final outdoor race of his high school career, he may just remember one moment, a personal pursuit at 5,000 meters that netted him the fourth-fastest performance of all-time in high school and placed him among the company of some absolute legends.
Few efforts in the prep record books will ever top that.
In truth, though, by 2019, Young was no secret in cross country or track and field circles. He was a crushing competitor who flatly dominated.
But it should also not be forgotten, even after Young's supreme performances in high school distance running over the past year, that he was a blue-chipper in another aspect of his career, too.
The Northern Arizona University signee -- a future kinesiology or business major, he said -- was an absolute beast in the classroom, finishing as one of Newbury Park High School's best students and among 28 class valedictorians. With a 4.68 GPA, he was a five-star academic recruit, too.
* Nico Young after his high school national record at 3,000 meters in February
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And maybe that's one of the main reasons why Young, 17, who had just one race to his name over the 2020 outdoor season -- an abbreviated few months that saw hundreds of athletes from around the United States perform on their own in self-made time trials and impromptu races -- made another kind of history.
Young became the first male in Gatorade's Player of the Year awards program -- the first boy in 35 years -- to win twice over one calendar year, earning the distinction of National Track and Field Athlete of the Year on Thursday. In February, he was also awarded National Cross Country Runner of the Year.
He became just the second athlete over Gatorade's awards series to earn this honor, following North Rockland's Katelyn Tuohy, who first accomplished this same feat in 2018 and finished her career with five national awards from the organization.
Plus, in becoming the national track and field winner, Young, who stands at 5-feet-11, will be in the running to become Gatorade's overall National Player of the Year during a ceremony later this month.
"I was super surprised to be able to win this award twice," Young said. 'It's the most prestigious award in high school sports. I'm extremely excited to now celebrate this."
Distance running is an endeavor not for the faint of heart, and sometimes its requires a slightly different drive than what most students employ in the classroom. But Young was an athlete who matched that talent with an equal determination in academics. When asked on Thursday if there was any merit to this theory -- that there needed to be two different sides to Young, the academic and the athlete? -- he differed on his answer.
"I think there are some things that are different," Young said. "But overall they're pretty similar. I set goals for myself, such as getting an A or something ... But it's similar in my motivaiton. Running is mental, too."
Singularly, Young was unmatched across the 2019 cross country and 2020 indoor and outdoor seasons. While he only raced twice between February and June -- due to the cancellation of the California Interscholastic Federation season -- he recorded history-making performances in both efforts.
He secured an high school indoor national record at 3,000 meters indoors in February, surpassing Drew Hunter's pervious mark with a time of 7:56.97 at the Millrose Games.
And then he followed with the fourth-fastest 5K performance in history on June 23, becoming just the ninth high school runner to run under 14 minutes with a time of 13:50.55. That Young accomplished that feat, breaking a 34-year-old California state record in June, well over four months since his last effort, speaks to the amount of training and incredible work he did behind the scenes.
"I'm proud of the effort I put in and all the training that I did," said Young, who traveled to Portland, Oregon, to put down that historic effort. "It was all worth it. It was a really fun experience. I'm proud of the 13:50, it's a great time."
More than those two efforts, though, was the previous year-plus for Young. He will finish his high school career having not lost a race against a high school athlete since May 23, 2019.
That stretch includes 17 official races, a time trial and a performance against professionals.
"I think after that (loss last year)," said Young, the defending Nike Cross Nationals champion who went undefeated over the cross country campaign, "coming into this year I had a goal of wanting to be undefeated. That played a role in that."
Young will now move on to Northern Arizona, where he will be under the tutelage of one of the NCAA's most reputable builders of talent and program success, Mike Smith.
* Nico Young after his NXN win in 2019
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The reigning NCAA runner-ups in cross country, the Lumberjacks won three straight cross titles from 2016-2018. And then they added Young, arguably the top distance recruit in the Class of 2020.
Young said his No. 1 goal is figuring out what Smith's plan is for him next year, whatever that entails, whether that's competing right away in cross country, redshirting for a future season, or a combination of those things.
A year's worth of running and training can be draining on any athlete -- especially one who's put in the kinds of miles and weekly workloads that he did -- but Young says he remains hungry for a chance to compete right away. His drive, as he's proved over the last year-plus, is all the proof you need.
"I'm really looking forward to the training part there," he said. "And having all these extremely accomplished college athletes to work with. It will make me improve drastically."
Gatorade National AOY Winners Since 2000:
- 2019: Matthew Boling
- 2018: Anthony Schwartz
- 2017: Mondo Duplantis
- 2016: Michael Norman
- 2015: Michael Norman
- 2014: Trentavis Friday
- 2013: Trayvon Bromell
- 2012: Abraham Hall
- 2011: Gunnar Nixon
- 2010: Sam Crouser
- 2009: Curtis Beach
- 2008: German Fernandez
- 2007: Bryshon Nellum
- 2006: David Klech
- 2005: Ryan Whiting
- 2004: Jason Richardson
- 2003: Kerron Clement
- 2002: Brendan Christian
- 2001: Alan Webb
- 2000: Donald Sage Jr.
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