Monday’s installment: Steve Scott experienced the nadir of his running career by finishing a disappointing fifth in the 1988 Seoul Olympics 1,500-meter race.
When a competitor wins as expected, he kisses his girlfriend, drinks Champagne and moves on. When he loses unexpectedly, he ponders the entrails of his defeat like an ancient seer on Mount Olympus.
When Steve Scott lost at the Olympics, the taste stayed in his mouth like chewed aspirin. Overnight, newspaper stories about him went from “run all editions” to “use if space allows.”
Through the early and mid-1990s, as his running career ended, Scott struggled to transition from big-time athlete to the world of mortals. He survived cancer, the endorsements dried up, his marriage ended, a couple of jobs didn’t work out and a business venture failed. Bad news didn’t seem to have a finish line.
However, Scott figured out that life is not a sprint, and he had the inner strength to keep himself together to wait for a better day.
That dawned at the close of the ’90s. His world turned on its axis when he found his Christian faith and met JoAnn, who became his wife. He also was hired as head track and field coach at California State University San Marcos.
Now, Cal State San Marcos was not a track powerhouse; it was barely a house. The scholarships Scott had to offer were a pittance compared with major schools’, and those to whom he could offer them were the leftovers from those same schools.
Today, nothing has changed. The school is still minor league in track and field.
Nevertheless, Scott, 58, putters in his Carlsbad garden as a contented man. To use that hoary cliché, he is making a difference — to others and to himself. He has also doubled-down on the value of amateurism, which is defined as sport for no reason other than the joy of it.
And to him, no one is a greater exemplar of amateurism than the typical Cal State San Marcos athletes. “They are great examples of the purity of sports, because they are not getting the accolades. People in the school don’t know what great things they’ve accomplished. They don’t know, and they don’t care. Yet the athletes are still out there training and sweating because they just love what they’re doing.
“When you talk about character, I think we have a much more well-rounded individual at San Marcos (than at big-time programs), because (students) know they can’t rely on athletics to create a life for them. They are balanced in what they’re doing. They are going to class, they are doing well in their studies and they are devoting just spare time to their sport. Our athletes have a higher (grade-point average) than the rest of the school.
“They are not student athletes, they are just athletes who go to class.”
(Cal State San Marcos is on the verge of leaving the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the lowest level of college sports, to join Division II, which will put it in the ranks of equal-size schools.)
Scott believes sports become a negative for kids at a very young age.
“Parents are putting their kids in soccer leagues year round, baseball leagues year round, basketball leagues year round. And they sometimes drive long distances to get their kids to practices at the expense of schoolwork and a well-rounded social life.
“When was the last time you heard of a three-sport letterman in high school? It was common in past years when kids would play several sports in season. Now, parental pressure has turned kids’ fun into a single-sport business.”
Scott says he doesn’t teach the love of sport; that’s already imbued in young people. He encourages them to let it flow.
He thinks the current educational culture of coddling children prevents sports from being a developmental tool. “Let’s look at grade school where we give every soccer player a trophy. We shield kids from dodge ball and any form of minor pain or defeat. Is that depriving those children of important lessons in their preparation for adult life?
“Being pain-free and disappointment-free is not reality. It’s ridiculous that you should make every kid a winner or a non-loser in sport. It denies them a valuable lesson. They need to learn at an early age that they’re not going to be the best at everything, they are not going to get every job they apply for, and not every person they love is going to love them back. Losing at sports teaches them that in a nondestructive way.”
On the San Marcos team, he says coaching girls and boys requires different communication skills. “Coaching girls, you really need to communicate a lot and be willing to talk about more than just the Xs and Os of training.
“You need to really get to know them as people and get them to trust you; whereas, to a guy, you just say, ‘OK, we are going to do this.’ They go, ‘OK, let’s get it done.’ ”
Asked to give a name and face to a representative athlete at Cal State San Marcos, he quickly says Heidi Swanson. She’s a middle-distance runner from Lakeside now headed for grad school. She’s also an All-American at her level.
Why choose her?
“Because she lives a clean life, she studies hard, she doesn’t use drugs, she has not been arrested for drunken driving. She has overcome a lot of things that would have sidetracked other people. Heidi is a competitor; she puts a lot of pressure on herself and hates to lose, but she handles it well.”
We’re not going to return to the day when the coach posts a notice, saying, “Tryouts for the track team will be Tuesday after final class. Bring your own shoes and towel.” However, if some weekend-runner history major shows up at practice, he or she will be welcomed by one of the greatest milers in history.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org