Just a few weeks removed from the biggest meet of his life, Khoi Young has seen the clips of his medal-winning vaults and pommel horse routine many, many times.
In one sense, it is a dream fulfilled: He’s the first American men’s gymnast to earn three medals (two silvers and a team bronze) at a single World Championships in 20 years. But the adventure still feels dream-like. When Young watches his spins, his flips, his steely confidence throughout his final runs in Belgium against the world’s best, it’s an uncanny experience.
Did he really do all that?
“It almost doesn’t feel like it was me,” he told The Banner last week. “It’s weird that in a flash, I accomplished what I did. I was so locked in, it barely felt like me.”
Yet this is what Young has worked for the last 14-odd years, since gymnastics coaches spotted the Bowie native’s talent for somersaults and tumbling at just 6 years old. Now he’s 20, still well before the prime of many elite male gymnasts. His All-American honors at Stanford and his World Championship medals feel like a mere preamble.
As his father, Kevin Young, said of watching Khoi: “It’s been very satisfying to see what he’s doing — I have sunshine on a cloudy day.”
For decades, the faces of U.S. gymnastics have been elite women: At the same meet where Young reached the podium, Simone Biles took home four Worlds medals to bring her career total to 30. The men’s program hasn’t had the same success, nor has it had the same charismatic stardom driving interest in the sport beyond its Olympic peaks every four years.
Young could be that athlete for the American men. He has a big smile, a sharp wit, a dry sense of humor and just happens to be one of the best in the world at two key disciplines. While he represents the potential of the U.S. men’s team — one of the younger rosters in international gymnastics — and what they could do in Paris next year after winning bronze at Worlds, it’s worth noting that Young is surging in a sport that hasn’t had many high-profile Black men at its highest levels.
Along with U.S. teammates Fred Richard (who won bronze in the all-around) and Baltimore native Donnell Whittenburg, there’s a chance that three of the top male U.S. gymnasts at the Olympics next year could be Black men.
The chance to represent his sport and his hometown means a lot to Young. He wants it all.
“Coming from Prince George’s County, we’re known predominantly for two things: being a Black area, and for producing elite athletes,” he said. “There’s a lot of Black figureheads from Prince George’s County, and I want to be that for others. I want to reach out to the younger kids and show them that it’s possible.”
The figures who have seen Young’s rise to Olympic hopeful say there could not be a better person set to take the spotlight, with the potential to transcend sport and tap into the broader culture. Stanford coach Thom Glielmi said: “I can’t see a better role model.” Bob Lundy, who oversaw Young’s development at the Prince George’s Sports and Learning Complex and ushered him into national team development programs, said Young’s work ethic has always pushed him toward the top.
Kevin Young, who Khoi called his top mentor and confidante, sees the comments on his son’s social media clips and self-produced videos, just a taste of the people who have drawn inspiration from him.
“That impact is already getting there, even before getting to the Olympics,” he said. “You look at the comments from all the people, there’s a lot of African American support for what he’s doing. … I think it will have an enormous impact. I’m very happy that Khoi sees the cultural importance of what he’s doing.”
It takes a lot of time and effort to get where Young has gotten. He was an energetic child who needed physical outlets: His parents enrolled him in swimming, basketball, soccer, karate. But when he was doing tumbling classes with his mother, Lucille Young, an instructor singled her out after class: Would her son be interested in doing more involved classes, a few hours at a time, a few times a week?
By the time he was in middle school, Young was already practicing for several hours every day after school, on his way to the Future Stars program and eventually the Junior National Team. Lundy would pick him up from Kenmoor Middle School in Landover to take him to practice (Young’s parents were still at work) and he’d drill until 8:30 p.m. Young took to the regimentation and instruction extremely well.
“He was a hard worker, and he cared about his performance,” Lundy said. “He had that mindset from the beginning.”
Lundy was a gymnast at James Madison University from 1988 to 1992, back when being a Black gymnast was “not so much being in a community as being unique.” There were pioneers back then: Ron Galimore was a U.S. floor champion who didn’t get an Olympic opportunity because of the 1980 boycott, and Chainey Umphrey made the 1996 Olympic team. But for a long time, being Black in men’s gymnastics felt like a novelty, even as women’s gymnastics celebrated figures like Biles, Gabby Douglas and Maryland’s own Dominique Dawes.
Lundy first got interested in bringing more Black faces into men’s gymnastics as a coach at Fairland gymnastics in Laurel, then as the U.S. men’s gymnastics Maryland state director. Going about this work, Lundy was frequently reminded how unique it was to field teams of Black boys.
“People would see five or six Black boys with a Black coach travel together as a team, and they’d ask us, ‘Are you a basketball team?’” Lundy said. “I’d laugh and say, ‘Well, they’re not tall enough to be playing basketball.’”
Young’s competitive streak was fueled by his youth program. He was inspired by older gymnasts such as Whittenburg, who medaled at Worlds in 2014 and 2015. He was pushed by peers like Amari Sewell, now a gymnast at University of Illinois whom he tried to stay ahead of at junior competitions.
It helped Young and others in the program that Lundy shepherded them toward pommel horse, an event that has typically been a U.S. weakness on the international stage. Said Lundy: “You get good at the pommel horse, you can write your own ticket.”
Lundy’s ambition for Young and the other gymnasts was to find their way onto college rosters as specialists, but Young rode it all the way to his inclusion on the Men’s Senior National Team. The typical peak for male gymnasts is at least in the mid-20s, given the considerable upper body strength required for certain disciplines. Young’s early adaptation to the pommel horse and vault put him ahead of the curve.
“I’ve had guys who started the sport late, and it just takes so much time to get to the level that Khoi’s at,” Glielmi said. “If he hadn’t started so young, we might be three years away from even having this conversation. But some guys just have a natural feel for certain events. He’s also very light and strong, and if he does get in trouble, he can make adjustments and just keeps working through it.”
At Stanford, Young has plenty of competition on his own team, which has won the last four NCAA team titles: Fellow Cardinal Asher Hong won the U.S. championships all-around in August.
“It’s a weird mix of friend and enemy,” Young said. “He’ll teach me skills, say you should do this or that, and we’re cheering for each other. But it’s also a one-versus-one. It’s fun, like: ‘I want to beat you and see where I stack.’”
It’s not all serious: Young has recently started releasing short social media videos showcasing a dry sense of humor. A compilation of his falls in practice is captioned: “Don’t worry, The video paused so nobody got hurt.” A tongue-in-cheek video about how to take a break in the middle of a routine shows Young (through clever camera framing) doing his “signature” one-handed iron cross on the rings while taking a drink of water. His Cardinal teammates are often his video co-conspirators.
“Being present online is bringing some more eyes to our sport,” Young laughs.
There was a critical moment at Worlds where Young came up short: In the team competition, he spun out and fell on the pommel horse, his signature event. But instead of imploding, Young came up big in the individual finals, sticking the routine that he had flubbed before to finish with silver. On vault, Young stuck both his landings, stunning even the TV commentators for the event on the way to his second silver.
Young was ecstatic to nail his individual routines, and his celebratory videos he’s released on social media dancing with his teammates attest to his elation. But he’s also been thinking a lot about the margins he had to reach gold: He was just two-tenths behind champion Jake Jarman of Great Britain on the vault; he was even closer to pommel horse champion Rhys McClenaghan of Ireland.
Young said his focus is not necessarily on making it to the Olympics: He stays locked on the next guy ahead.
“You can get too focused on the pot of gold,” he said. “I’m trying to beat the guy who beat me at Worlds.”
There’s a long way to go before the 2024 Games, especially in a sport with as many injuries and as much pressure as gymnastics. Young acknowledged he was taking a bit of a mental break, but his reading list suggests he’s aiming high in other pursuits: He’s recently torn through Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” while changing his major to product design in the engineering school. “My friends say I should study philosophy,” Young added.
The Young family is tentatively making plans for Paris next summer, hoping to take up seats at what could be Khoi’s national ascension. But Kevin Young is already proud of his son — of what he’s accomplished in gymnastics, and the pursuits he takes off of the floor.
“I don’t think he’s motivated my money, by notoriety — I don’t think he’s motivated by anything other than internal happiness,” Kevin Young said. “Before he left for college, my last words for him were, ‘Work hard and have fun.’ That’s been our mantra.”
Lundy has been tuning in to Young in competition, turning his meets on in the Sports and Learning Complex for young gymnasts to watch in between practices. He’s eager to see what Young does in his career, but he’s just as excited to see who comes next.
“When he’s on TV, I hope they mention his background, because we know him here,” Lundy said. “We make it a point that our kids know who he is and where he’s from. And he’s someone we can tell people in our program, ‘This is something your child can strive for.’”