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Inspiring Canadians - In Sport and Life

Honoured Member

GEORGE YOUNG

Inducted in 1955

Member Details

Date of Birth: 1910
Place of Birth: Scotland
Date of Passing: August 6, 1972
Sport: Swimming
Member Category: Athlete

Career Highlights

1928

First person to swim the Catalina Channel in winning the Wrigley Marathon

1931

Winner, CNE Marathon Swim

Honoured Member GEORGE YOUNG
Inspire

Story

On January 16, 1927, there was only one name on the lips of swimming fans--George Young. This penniless 17-year old kid from Toronto created an international sensation when he became the first person to swim the Catalina Channel, from Catalina Island to Point Vincente on the California mainland, collecting a $25,000 prize in the process. What should have been a glorious rags-to-riches tale, however, turned sour less than a year later when this young champion failed to live up to the expectations of his fickle fans. Young's greatest triumph turned out also to be his greatest tragedy, and it was not until years later that his immense accomplishments would be properly recognized. Born in Scotland in 1910, Young was brought to Canada as a baby by his widowed mother. Life was hard for the two immigrants, but the young boy found solace in the waters of Toronto's West End YMCA pool. Under the tutelage of coach Johnny Walker, Young soon splashed his way to victory in numerous local distance swims, winning four Toronto cross-the-bay swims, three Montreal bridge-to-bridge swims, and the Canadian 220yd. title. When he heard about the Wrigley Marathon, which offered a $25,000 prize to the first swimmer to cross the Catalina Channel, the 17-year old Young set out for the Pacific Coast. He and a friend, Bill Hastings, started out on a motorcycle, but it broke down around Arkansas, and the two boys had to hitchhike the rest of the way to California. They arrived in Los Angeles in December of 1926, leaving Young a few weeks to train for the daunting swim ahead. The only recorded crossing of this channel had been accomplished by a relay team of 15 swimmers over the course of 23 hours. On the 15th of January, Young dove off the banks of Catalina Island alongside 100 of the world's greatest distance swimmers, many of whom were acclaimed marathon champions, Olympic medalists, and record holders. No one had ever heard of the young swimmer from Toronto. Nevertheless, after a few hours, Young found himself in second place behind Chicago champion Norman Ross. Slowly, swimmers began to drop out of the race, until Young was alone in the fight against the icy depths, the intense exhaustion, and even the occasional shark. As he neared the mainland, thousands of people lined the shore with lighted beacons, shouting encouragement to the solitary swimmer as he battled the force of the incoming tide. The triumphant Canadian stepped onto shore after an incredible and grueling 15 hours and 45 minutes. George Young's fame was instantaneous. "The Catalina Kid" made headlines across Canada and the United States, while offers poured in for publicity appearances, product endorsements, and even a $250,000 motion picture contract. But George, who was young, unfamiliar with fame, and naive about finances, soon fell victim to those who claimed that they knew what was best for him and his new-found fortune. Prior to the race, his worried mother had signed a contract endowing 40% of his winnings to Doc O'Byrne, the man who had lodged him in California and helped him prepare for the swim. After, O'Byrne became Young's manager, while his mother, aunt, and even Mr. Wrigley, the donor of the marathon's cash prize, became involved in George's financial affairs. It is unclear exactly what role they played in the Canadian starlet's downfall, but suffice it to say that Young never saw that movie contract and emerged from the whole affair owing more than he made. Young's financial troubles, however, turned out to be the least of his worries. It was the vicious public eye that would be permanently damaging to the young champion. Upon his return to Toronto, some 150,000 people gathered to greet their new local hero, but what they really wanted was to see this living legend in action. A 21-mile marathon was staged at the CNE later that year, this time with a cash prize of $30,000, and there wasn't a doubt that the Catalina Kid would triumph once more. The outside pressure and the icy waters of Lake Ontario, however, proved to be too much for Young, who pulled out after only five miles. The public was quick to vent its disappointment on the athlete, labeling him a quitter and a phony. Just as quickly as his name had risen to lofty heights, so now did it rapidly fall. The CNE continued to hold annual marathon swims, while Young persisted in trying to win back his championship status. In 1928, the frigid waters prevented all competitors from finishing, and the race was declared a non-contest. In 1929 and 1930, he pulled out after suffering severe cramps. By the time he emerged victorious in 1931, his star had already faded to such an extent that few seemed to care. Young retired from competition shortly thereafter, worked on the Pennsylvania railway until the death of his second wife in 1953, and then worked for the Parks Commission in Niagara Falls until the end of his life in 1972. Though Young conquered the watery depths of the Pacific, he nearly drowned in the ocean of obligations and expectations that came with his celebrity status. It was not until years later that the media and the public recognized their grave mistreatment of the young athlete and tried to make amends. In 1950, the Catalina Kid was recognized as the greatest Canadian swimmer of the first half-century, and he later received honoured places in both the Ontario Aquatic and the International Marathon Swimmers Halls of Fame. He was also credited with popularizing the marathon swim in Toronto, which soon became one of the CNE's most prized events.


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