6x World Champion Dave Scott on fatherhood, Kona, and the abyss
Dear Izzy, Max, and Kate,
Ironman is what it is today because of one man; Dave Scott. Although he didn’t create the race, he quickly became the most dominant figure in the sport and remains today, arguably, the greatest male triathlete of all time. Dave Scott paved the way for those of us who love triathlon today.
I remember talking to Dan Gable 20 years ago. As a 17 year old high school wrestler that was one of the most exciting conversations of my life, getting to talk to one of my athletic heroes. The greatest wrestler and coach of all-time.
20 years later, as an age-group triathlete, I had the opportunity to talk to Dave Scott and the feeling was the same as when I talked to Dan Gable.
Dave Scott is the most recognized athlete and coach in the sport of triathlon. He is a six-time Ironman World Champion and the first inductee into the Ironman Hall of Fame.
He won his first Hawaii Ironman in 1980 and went on to win again in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986 and 1987. In 1993, he was honored for his accomplishments in the sport and became the first inductee into the Ironman Hall of Fame. Dave came out of a 5 year retirement in 1995 and at the age of forty, finished 2nd. That result, as much as any other, stunned the triathlon community and earned Dave the nickname “The Man”.
Dave is now one of the sports most successful coaches. But the untold story of Dave Scott is his devotion to his three children.
I had a chance to talk with Dave recently about fatherhood, his kids, and his career.
I hope you enjoy meeting Dave Scott.
Chad: You have lived a fairly private life away from triathlon. Tell us about Dave Scott the dad and about your kids.
Dave: I have 3 kids. My youngest Kara is 16 and will be a junior in high school. My son Drew is 21. He’s in his last year at CU Boulder. He transferred from Montana State University last year. Part of that was because he wanted to gravitate into triathlon. So that played a role in him coming back to Boulder. My oldest son Ryan is 23. He just finished up school in International Business and Marketing at Montana State.
Chad: Ryan and Drew were still little kids when you were competing at the top of the sport. How did having kids change things?
Dave: It was a bit more challenging. Ryan was born in 1989. I had won the 6 Ironmans in the 80s and 1989 was the year that I raced Mark Allen. There was a lot of attention given to that race – pre and post. Ryan was born in August and I had committed to racing at Ironman Japan, unbeknownst to my wife at the time. I didn’t know she was pregnant when I committed to the Japanese Federation. The race was in early August and she was due right around the race date, so I was really ambivalent about going over to Japan. But I did the race and I think it was difficult for the Japanese at the time, partly because of the customary protocol. I won the race and unfortunately had to skip out of the awards ceremony and events following the race. There were a lot of dignitaries at the event and I had to explain that my wife was pregnant and I wanted to be there for the birth of my son. Thankfully they were understanding and I was able to catch an early flight back and two days later she went into labor.
That was early August 1989. I was racing Kona in October and there was a lot of hype about the race with Mark. But I was preoccupied with this new little critter, so my sleep was compromised and my workout regime took a real hit. I wanted to be there every minute Ryan was awake! I didn’t want to train. I took a week, 6 weeks prior to Kona, where I didn’t do anything. Zero. Not one meter in the pool. Not one step in my running shoes. Finally some close friends forced me out the door. I went for a run with my sister, who was riding a bike. I’d put on weight and thought “Oh wow, this is catastrophic.” But at the same time I had this wonderful little kid at home that sort of diluted my thoughts I had at the time about my upcoming Ironman. So it was hard. I finally rallied enough to get it together and had a decent race.
Ryan was there at Kona in 89. I told Anna to bring him out in the scorching Kona heat. So she came out onto the run. We were staying at one of the condos about 4 miles into the run course. She comes out to the middle of the road carrying Ryan and starts running alongside Mark and I – and we’re running under 6 minute pace. She’s screaming encouragement and it was uplifting for me to see both of them. I just needed her to do that about every mile, especially in the last few miles. Maybe I could have pulled out the win.
Drew was born in December 1990, so they were pretty close together. So all of a sudden I had two and they’re both in diapers!
In 1990 I had an ankle injury. I kind of waffled with competing again. Losing that 89 race was disheartening, but at the same time, as an athlete, you pick yourself up and reignite the flame again. My mindset was to overcome the injury, but the reality was that I spent all of my time with my two little infants.
It was the tail end of 1992 that I really decided I had to get back and try to be an athlete again. So that’s when I made a commitment to race in Kona in 1994. So I had a 5 year hiatus when the two boys were little. I had two little guys. They’re talking. I’m taking them for runs in the jogging stroller. They hung out at the pool while I swam.
Things started drying up on the corporate end. You’re everyone’s hero when you’re doing well, but the corporations who sponsor you are looking at it like “you won 6 times in the 80s and got 2nd, but you haven’t done much since.” So there were a number of them who went by the wayside. Financially we took a big hit, but my passion for racing really came back regardless of the financial possibilities.
Chad: You once compared racing Ironman to “falling into the abyss.” Given that comparison, how do you talk to your son Drew, who is going down that road, about the mental part of the sport?
Dave: The abyss is the myopic view that I had. It’s when you don’t have anything else and train for this one race. I never thought I’d have a long term career in the sport. It wasn’t lucrative. The 5th Ironman win was the first time I got a paycheck. The 1st 4 I got tee shirts.
I had a couple of sponsors in 1982. I got $500 a month from Nike and I thought I was on my way to fame and fortune.
So avoiding the abyss is finding other things that interest you. I tell my athletes, including Drew, there are other things in life. It’s good to have interests outside of triathlon. You should be able to talk about more than your last brick.
Drew knows how to persevere. He knows how to not get beaten mentally. My kids know how to reach that high level of discomfort without letting it consume them. If you let that happen mentally, you’re done.
Chad: So are you coaching Drew or are you letting other coaches influence him as well?
Dave: During the college year Mike Ricci is Drew’s mentor. I think it’s important for him to experience different coaches. Outside of that I’m Drew’s coach.
He’s not worried about the luster around “Dave Scott”. I’m just his dad. He’s my kid. He’s doing the best he can. I’m just a middle aged guy and he can stomp me into the ground now. I can’t hang onto his wheel or run with him and I’m losing ground quickly in the swim.
He’s still really new to the sport and he’s only had about 15 consecutive months of training. In May last year he had one month to get ready for triathlon and then in Lubbock last year he qualifies for Hawaii!
He wanted to do it, so I wrote the check to WTC like everyone else. I felt like it was a little premature physically. But Drew is mentally tough and I knew he’d do fine. Unfortunately he crashed with Chrissie (Wellington) in that fateful crash 2 weeks before the race and broke his wrist. So I got this call from him telling me that he’d crashed and that Chrissie as on her way to the hospital.
He couldn’t hold the bike bars or swim well and then he got a cold. And I’m also dealing with Chrissie’s catastrophe. So those weeks leading up to Kona cost me about 10 years.
Everyone knows Chrissie pulled through and won again. Drew did great too. He flatted twice and lost over an hour waiting on the change. He couldn’t change his tire with his broken wrist. I saw him on the run and he looked “okay”, but when I saw him again he got a spark and ran the last 7 miles really well. Really well. It gave him a lot of confidence. I told him “look, there are only a couple of pros who can come back strong in the last part of that marathon. You did that. You’re going to master this thing one day.” He’ll do well – when he’s ready. He went 10:12, which is great, considering.
He’s not going this year. That’s his choice. When he’s ready again I’ll help him get there, but it’s his choice. He has other races he wants to do well in and committing to Kona makes that difficult. I think it’s a good decision this year. He’ll be back.
Chad: Much has been written about your victories and near victories in Ironman, but you’ve said before that one of your proudest moments as an athlete was at the 1996 Ironman Hawaii. You finished 5th that year, at age 42. Tell us about that race.
Dave: After 1994 when I finished 2nd, I dropped a weight on my toe in the gym so I missed the 1995 race altogether. But in 1996 I felt as though I would run fast, and my cycling was stronger, so I thought I could win in 1996. But the circumstances didn’t play out that way. I didn’t have a good swim. I was caught in the sea of people and I just didn’t feel great. So I got on the bike and thought “I’m going to smash the bike.” Those first 7-9 miles my legs didn’t feel great either. I wrestled with the bike. I just felt flat. It took me a long time. Something clicked at about 85 miles though, and I convinced myself to stop feeling sorry for myself. I thought I was in about 50th place. So I played this game with myself and thought “what if I could pull myself into the top 10 from here?”. I was actually in 26th place.
I came out onto the run and I felt great. I started passing people. I always took the run in segments. But that year I wasn’t trying to parcel my energy. I was running with urgency from the start. I remember catching the 10th place guy at mile 15. I caught the 5th place guy at mile 22. When I crossed the finish line the announcer wasn’t even ready for me. I think they thought I’d given up. Mike Reilly almost choked when he announced me in 5th place. That event is one of the most fulfilling events that I’ve ever done.
People recognize my 6 wins and 3 2nds, but no one ever mentions that 5th place. On paper it looks like a bad day, but there’s a message behind it. The power of the mind is incredible. I’d fallen into that abyss we talked about, but I was able to pick myself up – into a frenzy, really – and it almost worked.
Chad: Has the money that’s not riding on the race in Kona now changed things?
Dave: For the top people who really believe they can win, and I think there are only a few of those, the race hasn’t changed. Those people aren’t thinking about the money. Maybe in the last few meters of the run. For Crowie and Chrissie the money isn’t the motivator. It’s a nice perk, but not the reason. I would have loved a big check in the early days.
That hunger that I had, and Mark Allen had, Erin Baker, Scott Tinley, Paul Newby-Fraser, it’s still the same with the best athletes today.
Chad: Do you still consider racing in Kona occasionally?
Dave: I was on the fence back in 2009, really thinking I would do it and go fast, but I had a bad bike accident. I got hit by a car less than a mile from my house at the end of a ride. Since the accident things have been a little different. I have a badly mangled hand and wrist, my shattered scapula still catches. I work like a demon in the gym though. Harder than anyone out there.
The biggest thing though is I ended up with a blood clot in my lung, a pulmonary embolism, that left scar tissue. I can’t take a deep breath and that plagues me when I start working really hard. It feels like someone is stepping on my chest. I don’t want to go to Kona and fumble through it. But I am still racing some. I stay fit, between coaching and everything else. I still train pretty darn hard. It’s in my blood.
Chad: Do you have any final words of advice for age-groupers who are trying to balance work, kids, and multisport?
Dave: Boy I wish I knew it all. The greatest value that I shared with my kids is work ethic. I learned that from my parents: consistent work ethic. I think most age-groupers may take up too much time. Sometimes they’re better off doing a short smashing session on the weekends instead of going long. That gives them more time to be at home. Have other interests outside of triathlon. But when you train do it with great passion. Put your heart into it.