Steve Scott — known for the longest time as “the American mile record holder for life” — was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame six years ago in Indianapolis.
Certainly, it’s a prestigious and deserving honor for a three-time Olympian that held the American mile record for 26 years, claimed a 1,500 meters silver medal at the 1983 World Championships, and whose 136 career sub-four-minute miles is the most in history.
Scott, though, says he is more moved tonight by being inducted into his adopted hometown’s Breitbard Hall of Fame at the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum in Balboa Park.
“This is definitely the most impressive shrine to athletes I’ve seen,” Scott said. “You see the names of the Hall-of-Famers on the wall, and I feel lucky to be part of it. I feel lucky, because I wasn’t born here. Making it in is an honor that I’ve been accepted here.” Scott first was smitten with San Diego as a kid growing up in Upland when his family would spend a week every summer at the Catamaran Hotel in Pacific Beach. He now lives in Carlsbad while serving as the head coach of the cross country and track and field teams at Cal State San Marcos. He first bought a home in San Diego’s North County in 1982. By then, the former NCAA champion from UC Irvine was already known as one of the world’s biggest names in the sport.
America’s top ranked miler for 10 years, and one of the world's top 10 for 11 years, Scott battled Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram of Great Britain and Eamonn Coughlin of Ireland. He first broke Jim Ryun’s American mile record in 1981 and would break his own mark two times the next summer. The first record was 3 minutes, 49.68 seconds on July 11, 1981 in Oslo, Norway. The next summer in races 11 days apart in Oslo, he lowered his record to 3:48.53 on June 26 and a 3:47.69 on July 7. It wasn’t until 25 years later that Alan Webb broke Scott’s record with a time of 3:46.91 in 2007. But Scott came to view his 26-year reign with dismay for his sport.
“I never thought I would hold the record so long, and it almost became a joke," Scott said. "The 100 meters, the mile and maybe the pole vault are the marquee events of track and field. It’s like boxing without a great heavyweight fighter. It was damaging to the sport to not have a dominant American.”
But Scott, 51, who beat a battle with testicular cancer in 1994, says time has made him appreciate his silver medal at the World Championships and long reign over the American mile.
“When I won the silver medal, I wanted the gold,” Scott said. “When I set the American record, I wanted the world record. I was disappointed. As you get older, you appreciate your accomplishments, but at the time I didn’t.”
Scott’s career also was a victim of politics. In 1980, he made the Olympic team as the U.S. champion of the 1,500 meters, but the U.S. boycotted the Games in Moscow. He would have gained valuable experience in 1980 that would have helped him handle the pressure of being a favorite at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles following the 1983 World Championships. In the 1988 Olympics at Seoul, at the age of 32, when he had passed his peak years and the final race was his third in three days, he missed the gold medal by one second in a dramatic finish. The top five runners finished within 1.1 seconds.
After his elite racing days, Scott continued to impact San Diego’s running community. Since the mid-1980s he has eagerly accepted invitations to speak to runners on high school teams and offer tips. He also helped establish and promote the Carlsbad 5,000, which remains two decades later one of the world’s most prestigious road races. His records, his silver medal and his durability arguably establish him as America’s greatest miler. His world record of 136 sub-four-minute miles may last longer than 26 years.
Paul Greer, cross country coach at San Diego City College and track coach of the San Diego Track Club, believes so. Greer was a senior in 1984 at St. Augustine High when Scott was at the peak of his prowess. Later, Greer, who ran at San Diego State and became a sub-four-minute miler, would train with Scott. For a kid of Greer's era, he compared it to a kid in baseball growing up a Nolan Ryan fan and later competing with him. “Steve wasn’t an athlete that shined for a couple of years and left,” Greer said.
“He ruled the mile in the U.S. and was in the top 10 in the world. He missed out on an Olympic medal, but that consistency and dominance is what makes him the greatest. You don‘t see anymore what he did in the sport.”