NORTH VANCOUVER — If you want to know how Emily Young has made it all the way to the Paralympics in the gruelling sports of cross-country skiing and biathlon, all you need to do is look at what she did after completely destroying her right arm years before while competing in a totally different sport.
Back then the North Vancouver native was known by her maiden name, Emily Weekes, and she was one of the most talented wrestlers to come out of the powerhouse program at Carson Graham Secondary. She was at a training camp following her Grade 12 graduation, getting ready to wrestle in the 2009 Canada Summer Games, when her wrestling career was dealt a fatal blow. Young was doing “shooting drills” with another elite wrestler when the mats they were on became slightly separated. In a fluke accident, Young’s elbow got stuck between the mats in the middle of the drill.
“She spun, and my body spun with her but my elbow didn’t,” says Young. She dislocated her right elbow, separated her shoulder and suffered major damage to her ulnar nerve. It was a shocking injury, but what was even more shocking was what Young did next: she kept wrestling.
At the Canada Games Young taped up her elbow, hit the mats and fought her way to a bronze medal while barely using her dominant arm. Then she joined the high-powered wrestling program at Simon Fraser University where she competed for more than half a year.
“I was very stubborn and tried to continue, so I wrestled for the next eight months with one arm,” says Young.
She finally realized that this wasn’t going to work – every time she wrestled her elbow would pop out of joint. She went to doctors with a lot of questions and was given the one answer she did not want to hear.
“The joint was like held together with Silly Putty,” she says. “It was so wiggly. No surgeon would do anything on me unless I stopped wrestling.”
That was it. Wrestling career over.
“I was angry,” she says. “It wasn’t me making the decision to stop, it was someone else telling me I had to stop. And so I kind of just got angry.”
That anger and that stubbornness could have completely taken her off the rails after receiving such bad news, but instead it pushed her in a new direction.
“I was just mad, and the outlet for my anger was to just go for a run,” she says. Her stubbornness also helped her became a powerful cyclist – her arm wouldn’t let her wrestle but she wouldn’t quit the team. She still went to every practice, and while her teammates were on the mat she’d sit beside them on a stationary bike and pedal like mad.
“I was biking, like, four hours a day just watching everyone wrestle,” she says with a laugh.
When wrestling finally ended Young realized that with the running and biking she had been doing, she was one sport away from a new passion: triathlon. All she had to do then to become a high-level triathlete was to learn how to swim really fast, and that’s what she did. She raced the Penticton Ironman in 2012, won her age category and found herself heading off to Hawaii a few weeks later for the World Championships.
Then she burnt out, the arm injury making life very hard for her.
“I was having a hard time holding my bike,” she says. “I was running with one arm and swimming with one arm at that point, so I was kind of getting a little discouraged.”
More surgeries followed, but Young never gave up her athletic ways. It was on a training session – running up the infamous stairs behind the North Vancouver’s Save-On-Foods on Marine Drive – when she fell into her newest endeavour.
“I literally tripped and fell into a cross-country ski coach,” she says with a laugh. It was Birgit Weaver, whose husband Jake Weaver is the head coach at the North Shore-based Hollyburn Cross Country Ski Club.
The whole Weaver family, including daughter Katie who is an elite racer herself, helped launch Young’s ski career. It was a quick take-off. Her elbow now is basically locked at 90 degrees and she has very little feeling in her arm. She woud have to ski using just one arm. Her first time ever on cross-country skis – her right arm strapped to her body – came at a training camp in November of 2015. One day later she was in her first race, a 10-kilometre event in Whistler.
“I had people on every corner of the course telling me how to ski,” she says with a laugh. “It was so much fun, but also so embarrassing.”
Those pushing her on must have seen potential though – within weeks Young was meeting with coaches from the national para-nordic team. And three months after first setting foot in a ski boot, she was standing at the start line for the world championships.
“It was really scary to step into the world championships that year,” says Young. “I had no idea how to ski. I was like, ‘Um, how fast am I supposed to go?’”
She revelled, however, in small victories.
“I didn’t come last in two races!” she says. “That was huge!”
She also took part in some biathlon races despite never having shot a rifle before. If you’re seeing a pattern here, it’s that Young is never shy of taking on a new challenge, no matter how daunting it seems.
“It was fun, it was terrifying, it was embarrassing,” she says of her first trip to worlds. “But it was so motivating at the same time.”
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed her elite athletic career that Young soon started putting up top results in her new sports. Her first season on skis ended with a trip back to the Canada Games – the winter version this time – where she picked up three silver medals in para-nordic skiing.
She soon started climbing up the World Cup standings and this year has begun hitting the podium. Coming into the Paralympics, which begin March 8 in South Korea, she is ranked fourth overall in the world in cross-country.
Young says she’s going to come into the Games with no expectations about where she’ll finish on her sport’s biggest stage.
“I think of it as another World Cup, there are just a few more people watching,” she says. She’s still wrapping her head around the fact that she will be competing at the Paralympic Games.
“It’s gone so fast, but there’s been so much ground covered. To think I’ve been doing high-level sport since I was 14 and I’m now 27 – it just seems like last year we were wrestling in high school. ... I can’t regret any moment or risk I’ve taken, because all of them have put me into this situation. I never expected to be able to say that I was going to the Paralympics.”
Young knows that sport dealt her a tough blow – she’s had to learn how to do everything left-handed – but sport is also what saved her.
“Sport was an outlet for me, I knew how to control sport,” she says. “No matter the sport, I knew it was a challenge. I strive for the lactic acid burn. It’s a sick thing, but it’s something that really honestly drives me.”
There was a clear choice for her after the injury, she says.
“You could go two ways – you could get super depressed and get sad and lock yourself in a dark room and cry about it, or you can just keep moving forward,” she says. “Sport is my life. I’m happy to say that I’m an athlete. It saved me from being in a bad place after the injury. … I was trying to pursue the Olympics in wrestling but the stars didn’t align. Now we’re here and it’s kind of crazy, kind of surreal. It’s gone so fast.”