EUGENE, Ore. — When UCLA's Kevin Young lined up for the start of the 400-meter intermediate hurdles in the recent Pacific 10 track meet at the Coliseum, he said he would have been satisfied to finish second.
The Bruin sophomore had already done his part for the team by finishing fourth in the high hurdles and third in the long jump.
Young didn't figure to win the longer hurdles race because he had lost to the favorite, California's Dave Chesarek, in a dual meet earlier in the season.
"I just said to myself that I would run as hard as I possibly can," Young said. "When I came off the final turn, I expected Chesarek to be right there inside of me.
"But I looked both ways and didn't see anyone. I was thinking of taking second before and now I could see that I could win it and I got real fired up."
Not only did Young win the race, but he lowered his previous best time by more than a second, to 49.02 seconds, setting a meet record in the process.
Young then surprised himself again two weeks later in the NCAA meet at Indianapolis, where he extended Danny Harris before finishing second with another personal-best time of 48.77.
Harris, the clear favorite from Iowa State, had won the NCAA event two consecutive years and was the silver medalist, behind Edwin Moses, in the 1984 Olympic Games.
Harris made it three in a row at the NCAA meet but he must have been wondering about the skinny runner from UCLA, who was virtually unknown in major competition.
Seldom has an athlete improved so rapidly in such a technical, demanding race as Young has this season.
He was losing in dual meets during the season while running in the 50-second range. Then, he made his startling breakthrough.
Young will try to take another stride toward world-class status today when the USA/Mobil outdoor track and field meet begins at Hayward Field. Harris is the favorite again--world record-holder Moses and Andre Phillips are not competing--but he won't be saying, "Kevin who?" when Young's name is mentioned.
UCLA recruited an outstanding freshman class last season, which included sprinter Henry Thomas, pole vaulter Brandon Richards, quarter-miler Danny Everett and weightman Brian Bluetreich, who was redshirted.
When Young came to UCLA as a freshman nearly two years ago, it was without a prestigious calling card. His only credential was a third-place finish in the State meet high hurdles as a senior at Jordan High School.
Furthermore, he hadn't competed in the prep 300 hurdles, a race he considered a drag because it was run at the end of meets.
So he was a walk-on at UCLA, assisted, he said, only by a $1,000 Coca-Cola scholarship awarded to aspiring, future Olympians.
But UCLA Coach Bob Larsen was aware of Young's potential.
"We anticipated that he was going to be a great intermediate hurdler," Larsen said. "The reason I say that is, here's a tall, thin person without much strength, so you knew the development would be there. And he was 13 steps all the way between the hurdles, like Moses.
"As an example, Andre Phillips couldn't take 13 steps until the last few years, and I'm not sure he can take 13 steps all the way now. Young was easily taking 13 steps.
"He has very long legs and runs gracefully with excellent coordination and he has strength now. The weight guys marvel at some of the things he can do. He has great flexibility. He doesn't look like he's strong but he has great tensile strength in his arms and legs.
"When he runs a difficult event like the intermediates, he calls upon all the strength he does have. This year, he came out running 12 steps for the first six hurdles, then finishing with 13 steps."
Not only has Young gone from a 51.09 400-meter hurdler to 48.77 in one season, he is also a competent high hurdler, in 13.84, and long jumper, at 25 feet 4 1/2 inches, and Larsen says Young has yet to take off from the board, which costs him five or six inches.
Young's conference victory was impressive, but no one was prepared for his startling performance in the NCAA meet, least of all the Bruin sophomore.
"I originally thought that it would be nice just to finish in the top six in the NCAA meet," he said. "Then, I qualified for the finals with the second-fastest time (49.06) behind Harris. That's when I thought I might be able to finish second."
Larsen said Young didn't run a technically clean race in challenging Harris. "He was supposed to take 20 strides to the first hurdle, but he was pumped up and took 19," the UCLA coach said. "Then he took 12 down the backstretch until the fifth hurdle, when he took 11 strides, which may be the only time in competition that someone has taken 11 strides.
"But that cost him because that's not really efficient for him to take 11, and he grazed the fifth hurdle slightly. Harris, who was inside of Young, caught him then. "When Harris caught him, Kevin transformed into 13 strides and stayed with Harris throughout the turn. But, of course, Harris had already made up the stagger.