SEATTLE JHC &B — SEATTLE -- When Vikki Scott left Town in 1986, she was 37, overweight and smoked 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes a day. She was at best a weekend athlete who dabbled in jogging, kayaking, soccer and skiing.
Now she is back at age 43 and training for an Olympic rowing berth. Is this a middle-aged folly by a woman who doesn't have her oars in the water? Hardly. She proved she could row by winning a silver medal at the Pan-American Games last year in pairs competition.
What makes her story all the more compelling is the rowing success of her son, Jason, 22, the stroke on the silver-medal Pan-Am eight-oared crew. The Scotts were the first mother-son members of the same U.S. team. She also was the oldest woman selected.
Jason, who introduced his mother to the sport, now is in the pre-Olympic camp at Princeton. His quest matches his mother's -- make the Olympic team.
Jason started rowing in 1986 when he and his mother (a single parent since his birth) moved to Arlington, Va. After 10 years in Seattle, she accepted a promotional transfer with the Red Cross. His new high school offered rowing as an interscholastic sport, and he quickly established himself as a standout. The next summer, he was on the junior national team.
The Scotts are a rare family where the parent says, "I feel I'm the chip off the block."
Vikki added, "He is my mentor and my role model."
Jason, who is 6 feet 5 and turned down major-college football offers, returns the compliment. He said his mother's hard work "has made me try harder."
Vikki's first rowing success came on land. She entered a rowing-machine (ergometer) contest on a bet and won in her age group. A year later, she set a world age-group record for 40-year-olds on the "erg."
Rowing became exhilarating and a way of adjusting to turning 40 and the impending "empty nest" with Jason headed toward college, ultimately accepting a rowing scholarship from Boston University. She decided her physical condition was one thing over which she had complete control and pushed herself to get in the best shape of her life.
"It's my body and I decided I needed to take care of it," she said. "As a result of that goal, the other things have happened. I was just thinking the other day that I really feel I'm a free person as a result of doing what I wanted to do. I found out that I really wanted to pursue the innate athletic ability that had laid dormant for a long time."
She tried to balance rowing and a career, then quit her job in 1990 to move to Philadelphia for better coaching and a chance to make the national team. She ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and struck a pose a la "Rocky," but the magic didn't carry. She was bypassed for seats in the eight- and four-oared shells.
Last June, Vicki finally found success. She teamed with Majorie Reimer, 28, of Philadelphia, to win the only lightweight pairs-without-coxswain berth to the Pan-Am Games in Cuba.
The Olympics have no lightweight division, so the 5-foot-8 Scott has bulked up to 150 pounds to compete in the more competitive open division. She also has a new, powerful partner, Autumn McFate, 21, a pre-med student from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Scott recruited McFate with the unusual tactic of putting up "partner-wanted" posters on the portable toilets at a major race in Boston last fall.
McFate, whose mother is one year older than Scott, played five sports in high school. The athletic offerings in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Scott grew up as the daughter of a utility sales manager, were so limited and unappealing that she only played intramurals.
Scott's decision to try for the Olympic berth in pairs is a calculated one. Unlike selecting eight- and four-oared Olympic shells, politics or coach's "hunches" aren't involved in choosing the only U.S. pairs entry. It will come down simply to which boat wins the Olympic Trials in early June in New Jersey.
Scott and McFate are gambling that by forming a pair early and training together twice a day, they can win. Many of their competitors at the Trials will be hastily formed pairs consisting of rowers who weren't selected for the bigger boats.
Scott says her Olympic dream has put her $28,000 in debt. She and McFate live with an understanding friend. Scott earns some gas and grocery money teaching first aid at night.
One of Scott's friends, Linda Zahava, a psychotherapist, calls the rower "a role model for all women over 40."
"The fact she didn't start until she was 39 makes it particularly powerful," Zahava said. "That she's stayed with it in the face of age discrimination and her own moments of doubt is something we can all learn from. . . . If we had her persistence, we could be doing better than we are."
Scott and McFate go through a vigorous daily regimen of rowing and weightlifting.
"My head is fresh," said Scott, of her late entry to elite athletics. "I don't have all that clutter telling me I can't do it or what hard work it is."
Scott said an inner voice tells her she is doing the right thing.
"I've had to look down deep," she said. "People ask, 'How can you keep doing this? How do you know?' It's like setting any goal that's beyond your reach. You have to have faith you can do it. Plus, you persevere. It's like I had a little taste of it and now I want it all."