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‘Just let her play’: Texas Paralympian found resilience in sports

Deja Young-Craddock, a Dallas native, competed in two Paralympic games and broke a world record in 2019.

As an athlete at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo, Deja Young-Craddock earned two gold medals and a bronze.

Born in Dallas and raised in Mesquite, Young-Craddock, who now lives in Temple, has seven medals from the World Para Athletics Championships, and she set a world record in 2019 for the 100-meter.

But despite a life filled with accolades and accomplishments, Young-Craddock has also faced immense challenges and the depths of despair. She attempted suicide just a month before the trials for Rio. She suffered a devastating car accident in 2016. And her father died last October.

Young-Craddock has brachial plexus, a disability that affects her running form and causes nerve damage and limited mobility in her right arm.

As she reflects on her career, Young-Craddock knows her mental health has often been tied to her success on the track. She is working to define herself as someone other than a runner. And with her first child born last month, she wants to be an example of resiliency for her daughter.

She says she has found clarity in knowing her self-worth exists outside of competition.

Team USA's Deja Young-Craddock runs in a heat of the 100m August 31, 2021 at the Olympic...
Team USA's Deja Young-Craddock runs in a heat of the 100m August 31, 2021 at the Olympic Stadium at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. (Mark Reis/U.S. Paralympics Track & Field)(Mark Reis / Mark Reis)

“I was able to become not only Deja Young, track and field athlete, but also Deja Young [who] does work with art and all these other different aspects,” she said. “I was becoming more than just an athlete.”

‘Just let her play’

Young-Craddock, 26, was injured at birth, with muscles and nerves torn in her right shoulder. Doctors encouraged her parents to have her play sports. “My doctors told my parents, ‘Let her be a kid. Sports will be her rehabilitation. Whatever it may be, just let her play,’ ” she said.

So she tried the gamut: softball, basketball, soccer and volleyball. The one that stuck was track and field.

In high school, Young-Craddock began to thrive at the 100- and 200-meter races, and she knew she could run at the collegiate level. Still, some of the coaches at her school discouraged her from pursuing a running scholarship and made her feel like “damaged goods.”

“I overheard another coach say, ‘Hey, you really think a college coach is going to accept you with that arm?’ ” she recalled. “I broke down crying and went home. I wanted to quit.”

But she continued to pursue a scholarship and eventually signed with Wichita State University.

Her first competition for the U.S. Paralympics team was the 2015 World Para Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar — the fall of her sophomore year — where she won gold in the 100 and silver in the 200.

“It’s so funny, because at my first World Championship I just kind of showed up,” she said. “I was like, if anything happens, it happens. I’m just going to go out and have fun. And that’s exactly what I did.”

But less than a year later, Young-Craddock entered a low point that almost ended her life.

In June 2016, just a month before competing in the Rio Paralympic trials, she attempted suicide.

She was coming off of a stressful second year of college at WSU, a year of intense training and competition. She felt like she had fallen behind in her pre-med classes. She felt like an outcast from her peers.

Her friends didn’t understand how she could be upset when her books and school were paid for with her track scholarship. Instead of talking about what she was experiencing, she felt the need to apologize for being ungrateful.

“I was really struggling because I was like, ‘Where am I supposed to get help from?’ ” she said.

‘She’s a fighter’

U.S. Paralympic and Olympic track coach Joaquim Cruz has worked with Young-Craddock for about six years.

“Her struggles became my struggles, and her goals became my goals,” he said. Cruz is sensitive to her journey with depression and throughout his time being her official coach he said she did not have to compete if she wasn’t up to it. But she did in Rio — and she won gold in the 100 and 200.

“Oh, she’s a fighter,” Cruz said. “She’s forced me to bring the best of my training ability.”

Cathy Sellers, former director of Paralympic Track and Field at the U.S. Olympic Committee said her favorite memory of Young-Craddock was that year in Rio “when she came across the line and was just ecstatic and [her] arms were up in the air and … there was this giant smile on her face,” she said.

Since competing in Rio, Young-Craddock has continued to face challenges that have tested her mental health. When she was driving back to college for track practice in the fall of 2016, she was in a car accident that totaled her vehicle, fractured her wrist and bruised her hip bone.

She was bedridden while recovering and began gaining weight. Coaches told her she was “too big” to compete, she said. Still, she went to London for the World Championships and won two gold medals in the summer of 2017.

In 2020, she stopped working out when training facilities shut down because of COVID-19. She questioned whether she wanted to continue running. Mentally, she “wasn’t there” for competition. But she pushed herself to run in the delayed Tokyo Paralympic games.

There, she won bronze in the 100-meter.

Focusing on motherhood

Young-Craddock is taking a break from running to focus on motherhood and her family.

In March 2021 she married Tim Craddock, who is in the military and based in Austin.

She found out she was pregnant four days after losing her father in October 2021. She said she didn’t have time to process what was happening.

But she’s now at a place where her mental health is getting stable, she said, because she’s opened up about her experiences.

Young-Craddock has gotten involved in initiatives outside of track that are important to her, like creative writing and art. She was also a U.S. State Department mentor in Nigeria in 2018, where she spoke about her experience as an athlete with a disability. She also spearheaded a fundraiser for shoes, clothes and backpacks for athletes with disabilities in Nigeria.

She works for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council as a representative for athletes to ensure they have a voice in the organization.

“I realized my mental health is not point A to point B,” she said. “It’s so important to continue to talk about [mental health] not only in the athletics world, but also in the Black community and as a woman.”

Young-Craddock’s daughter, Saia, was born in June, but motherhood isn’t going to keep her from competing. She’s seen the greats do it, like Serena Williams and Allyson Felix, and she knows she can come back.

“I have a little daughter, and I want her to know anything is possible,” she said. “I know there are going to be some challenges along the way, but I’m not quite done yet.”

Lifelines of support

Here For Texas Mental Health Navigation Line: Grant Halliburton Foundation initiative that connects North Texans with mental-health resources customized to each caller at 972-525-8181, or go to HereForTexas.com.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24-hour crisis hotline at 988. Confidential online chat is available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Crisis Text Line: 24-hour support by texting HOME to 741741. More information at crisistextline.org.

North Texas Behavioral Health Authority: 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-866-260-8000 or go to ntbha.org.

Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas: Speak to a trained counselor on the 24-hour hotline at 214-828-1000 or 800-273-8255 or go to sccenter.org.

Dallas Metrocare Services: For help, call 214-743-1215 or go to metrocareservices.org.

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