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Opportunity Lost, Then Found

Olympian denied chance to compete in 1980 now helps college runners meet their goals

Steve Scott encourages runners at the 2016 California Collegiate Invitational. HECTOR LOPEZ / CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, SAN MARCOS

Steve Scott, the longtime men’s and women’s cross country and track and field coach at California State University, San Marcos, broke the four-minute-mile barrier a world-record 136 times during his career. He won five NCAA titles in the 800-meter, 1,500 and mile runs at the University of California, Irvine. He also was a silver medalist in the 1,500 at the first International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in 1983.

But among his most notable memories is one he never got a chance to make. He placed first at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1980 but missed the games in Moscow due to the U.S. boycott. Scott later competed in two Olympics, and this year, as a new generation of Olympians prepares to compete, he reflected about his career as a runner and coach, and what that missed opportunity meant to him.

Champion magazine: Were you interested in running while you were growing up?

Steve Scott: I was a baseball player. I was lazy and didn’t have a work ethic. If the coach wasn’t standing over me, I wasn’t running hard. It was an accident that I got involved in running. In eighth grade, a high school coach came to our school and hosted a cross country race between us and our rival junior high. Afterward, he said if we weren’t in a fall sport, we had to go to first-period PE. I went out for cross country without knowing anything about it.

CM: Do the Olympic Games bring back memories of the boycott in 1980, when you couldn’t compete?

SS: They do. The main thing that hurt me was not getting the chance to go and get a feel for what the Olympics were about. I went to the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1976, when I was a sophomore in college. Making it to the trials at that age, you think, “In the next four years, this is going to be my chance.” I was the top-ranked American and one of the top three or four in the world in 1980. The experience of 1980 would have made me more comfortable going into the games in 1984.

CM: When did your running career peak?

SS: I was the silver medalist in the 1983 world championships. I had the American record and was just a couple of tenths off the world record. But I did a lot of stupid things in 1984 that, had I had the Olympic experience in 1980, I probably wouldn’t have done. I changed the way I trained, my tactics, my travel. I changed everything. Honestly, I freaked out in 1984 about the chance to just run in the Olympics. They were held in the area where I grew up (Los Angeles). It was in my hometown. I felt tremendous pressure to perform.

CM: What were the 1988 Olympics like?

SS: By 1988, I was very relaxed and calm. I kept things in perspective. I traveled with the team and stayed in the Olympic Village. At that point, I was a little too old. Back then we ran three races in three days. Three 1,500-meter races at age 32 in three days made it difficult. I just didn’t quite recover for the third day.

CM: Did you plan to become a coach?

SS: The guy who was putting in the track at Cal State San Marcos, Bob Mangrum, was a big fan and followed my career. They thought it would be nice if I said some nice words at the groundbreaking. When the time came, I had a family emergency. I felt really bad. I told them that I wanted to make up for it. They arranged for me to meet him at his house, and we went for a run. He asked if I knew anyone who would be interested in coaching. I said, “Yeah, me.” That was 1999. I’ve been here for 17 years.

CM: Is being a coach satisfying?

SS: Each kid has their own goal. One may want to break 21 minutes in a 5K. But I have another one who wants to run 16:30 for a 5K. My goal is to help them achieve their goals. Last year was our first chance to run in the California Collegiate Athletic Association meet, and I gave our team a pep talk on how both programs should try to finish in the top three. We were third in the women and fourth in the men, so we came pretty close. I get the satisfaction when they achieve their goals.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.