Who's the World's Best Miler? Steve Scott Won't Take Coe (or Ovett) for An Answer

UPDATED 09/28/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/28/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

As a freshman member of the Upland, Calif. high school track team, Steve Scott savored the pleasures of life in the slow lane. "I didn't run at all during the summer," he recalls, "so my mother started running to make me feel obligated. She'd go out in the morning and come back all dripping wet, saying she'd just done four miles herself. I'd say, 'That's good,' roll over and go back to sleep."

Scott, now 25, hasn't needed much prodding lately. This summer he became the fastest miler in American history, clocking a 3:49.68—and slicing 1.42 seconds off Jim Ryun's 14-year-old record. Yet Scott is still more than two seconds short of Sebastian Coe's world mark of 3:47.33, set during a frenzied two-week period last month when Coe and his fellow Briton Steve Ovett traded possession of the record three times. In fact, Scott has labored all season in the shadow of his two British rivals. When he set his U.S. record in Oslo last July, he could finish no better than Ovett. A few weeks later he set a new U.S. record for the 1,500 meters—but on the same day as Ovett's world-record mile. Three days after that Coe shattered Ovett's record in Brussels, while Scott once again ran attendance in third. A lesser competitor might be discouraged, but Scott does not have the soul of an also-ran. "You can beat him nine times in a row," says his coach Len Miller, "but he isn't going to concede a thing when he comes to the line the 10th time."

Though the outdoor track season is nearly over for 1981, Steve will get one last shot at Ovett this week in New York, when both will compete in the first Pepsi Challenge Fifth Avenue Mile. No recognized record is possible, since the race will not be run on a track with turns, but Scott is pleased to have the home track advantage for once. "When I set the American record in Oslo," he recalls ruefully, "my friends were happy for me, but it just wasn't the same. If I was in America, I probably would have been mobbed."

An unambitious student in high school, Steve went on to attend the University of California at Irvine, where he majored in social ecology, and annoyed his father, a doctor, by an overall lack of commitment. Then, unexpectedly, Steve began to take his running more seriously. "The turning point," he says, "was when I went to the 1976 Olympic trials. I was the last to qualify for the 1,500, and I really didn't think I had a chance. But seeing all those dedicated guys really hit me. I told myself, 'You're not working as hard as they are, and look how far you've come.' " He bore down, but not at the expense of the sense of humor that had once impelled him and some teammates to run a training sprint in the buff. "A lady drove past and did a double take," recalls coach Miller. "It didn't register that they were naked until she drove a little further. Then she looked back over her shoulder and almost went into the bay."

In 1979 Miller moved from Irvine to the Arizona State University at Tempe, and Scott went along as his unpaid assistant. That same year he married Kim Votaw, his high school sweetheart, who last month gave birth to their first child, a son, Corey. Between races, Scott stays trim by running 10 to 15 miles daily—often at night during Arizona's furnacelike summers. He sprints to maintain speed, lifts weights to build up his torso and faithfully adjourns to his television set to watch the ABC soap All My Children.

Though Scott is one of America's finest track-and-field athletes, he has not achieved the recognition he might have had if the U.S. had not boycotted the Moscow Olympics. His coach believes it cost Steve an excellent chance at a gold medal in the 1,500 meters. "There's a difference between running one race you can point for and having to run three races in three days, as you do in the Olympics," says Miller. "Steve's greatest assets are his strength and resilience. He can run three days in a row and be as strong the third day as the first."

Before getting a chance to prove his coach right at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Scott hopes to return the world mile record to the U.S. for the first time in 14 years. Meanwhile, he helps make ends meet by making paid appearances for a sports clothing company—an arrangement that, under the murky rules governing such matters, does not jeopardize his amateur standing. "My father's a lot better about my running these days," says Steve with a grin, "but I still don't think he's come to grips with the fact that my profession right now is being a miler. It's not what you'd call a 9-to-5 job."

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