September 16, 2022 7 min read 8 Comments
Daphne Scott didn't just win the decathlon at the USATF Masters Outdoor Combined Events Championships. She set an American record and was surrounded in flight by "angels".
By John M. Harris
When Daphne Scott was a senior in high school in South Africa her class was shown highlights of the 1976 summer Olympics. She was enthralled and inspired by Bruce Jenner’s decathlon performance.
A boy at her school was doing the decathlon and she wanted to join in. But back then, in 1977, the decathlon wasn’t an option for schoolgirls. “I was told I couldn’t because I was a girl,” Scott says. “South African society is very chauvinistic. ‘You need to get back in your corner woman.’ But I had that high school dream of doing a decathlon.”
Now, 45 years later, Scott, a math professor at Western Washington University, is preparing for her third decathlon. If all goes well, she will set an American record, and possibly a world’s best, for her age group: women 60-64.
The meet is the 2022 National Combined Masters Championships, held on the campus of Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. Scott is 62 and the only competitor in her age group. It’s the same with all the other women’s groups, starting with 29 and under, except W75, in which Mary Trotto from Hawaii and Barbara Warren from West Virginia are competing.
Scott informs meet officials beforehand she plans to go for the American record. Everything must go right in order for a new mark to become official, and not just the athlete’s performance. The wind, heights, distances, all must be measured correctly. Any miscalculations or missteps by meet officials and the marks won’t go in the record book.
Scott is the mother of three grown sons and a step-daughter. She moved to the United States in 1987 to escape the crime and violence in South Africa. The homicide rate in Johannesburg was 10 times that in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t want to raise a family in that environment,” she says.
She began her masters career in 2006 at age 46. She was having trouble losing weight and sought a training regimen. She tried aerobics but found it boring. “I remembered I really liked running fast as a kid,” she says. “Maybe I should try that again.” And as a mathematician, she liked tracking and analyzing her progress.
Scott heard about a decathlon for women for the first time in 2009, six weeks before the meet. She had next-to-no experience in most of the events but trained hard and went for it. She became the first woman to complete a decathlon in the W45 age group. By default, she established the American record, with 4,042 points. “Pretty pathetic,” she says. “The hurdles consisted of eight high jumps for me. It was sheer survival.”
Scott began training with Steve Kemp in 2014. Kemp won the decathlon at Canada’s Olympic Trials in 1980, but Canada joined the Olympics boycott after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and his chance to test himself against the world’s best passed by. Kemp revamped Scott’s running technique and she flourished. In 2015, she won the national title in the 100, 200 and 400, and the world title in the 400.
She completed her second decathlon last year in Fort Collins, Colorado, scoring 6,501 points, which put her within striking distance of Rita Hanscom’s American age-group record of 6,946 points. Also within sight: the world best 7,170, set in 2020 by Brigitte van de Kamp-Linnebank of the Netherlands. A week before the meet at Lindenwood, Kemp tells her, “I’ve never felt so confident you’ll break the American record.”
Scott rooms in St. Charles with Trotto, 75, a veteran of more than a dozen decathlons. They head to the track the day before the meet to practice. The pole vault pit is open and Scott decides to do some drills. She’s still learning pole vault and isn’t confident. She asks for an 11-foot pole and an official mistakenly hands her a 10-foot pole. It’s old and the length is scratched off. Scott
trusts it’s 11 feet.
A tape measure isn’t yet available, so she lays the pole end over end on the runway to measure her steps. Something feels off, so Scott measures her pole against Trotto’s 10-footer and realizes the mistake. Now everything is off kilter — her grip on the pole, her steps.
She runs toward the pit, but not fast enough, goes straight up and comes back down into the well.
Her thigh slams against the pole and her foot twists hard enough that her shoe pops off. “My confidence was shot,” she says.
That night her thigh is so swollen and stiff she can’t squat. She questions whether she’ll be able to compete, let alone go for the record.
Trotto is a retired exercise physiologist and physical therapist and always brings a medical kit to meets. It contains kinesiology tape, CBD oil, herbal creams and other homeopathic medicines.
She goes to work on Scott’s thigh. Scott also does hydrotherapy in the motel pool, works with a massage gun, and prays. She’s part of a nondenominational group that prays for healing for others. Scott prays for her own healing.
The first event is the 100 meters and Scott runs faster than she did while placing second earlier in the summer at the USA Track & Field Masters Outdoors Championship. “My angels were with me,” she says. “Plus, Mary’s care. All of those treatments, all of those tools, added up.”
Next is the long jump. She makes the second-best leap of her career, and breaks into tears, relieved. The record is still possible. But she knows positive emotions can be as draining as negative, and she checks herself. “You have to manage that,” she says. “You have to put it to the side. Get on with the next event.”
The mental aspect of competing in — and completing — a decathlon is as important as the physical. “That comes into play especially if you have a bad event,” Trotto says. “You have to shake it off; otherwise everything mushrooms down. Now, she’s on a roll. That’s what kept her going and kept her up there.”
The shot is next. Scott is hoping for something in the 8-meter range. When she enters the ring she visualizes an English TV comedy in which Caitlin Jenner shot puts a grapefruit into the audience.
Scott throws 8.57, a lifetime best. She’s stunned. “Now everybody’s chattering,” she says. “Now the pressure is on.”
She hits another PR in the high jump, unaware at first of the height she has cleared. Standing far from the pit and not hearing the soft-spoken official, she doesn’t hear the heights. She clears 1.30 meters, one height higher than she thought she had. She finishes the day running the 400 in 74.99 and calculates her total: 4,280 points. She’s on track to break Hanscom’s record, even with a
mediocre second day.
“I thought she had a harder task the second day,” Trotto says. “But she had so many points after the first day that she didn’t need to go as high in the pole vault. She’s different than Rita, because Rita’s a jumper. Daphne is a true decathlete; she’s good at everything.”
The 80-meter hurdles start off the day. She runs 15.4, a second slower than her winning time at
the U.S. Masters Outdoor nationals in July. She’s disappointed, but it’s the second day of the decathlon. She’ll take it.
As she’s walking back to the start to pick up her gear a race official catches up with her. The wind gauge wasn’t set up, he tells her. No wind gauge, no record. He immediately offers an alternative. The younger women are running the 100-meter hurdles. She can join in, and start 20 meters ahead of them.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m warmed up, I’m pissed, I’m going to put that energy into the hurdles and I’m going to take it as an opportunity to improve my time. That was my mindset I took into it.”
This makes her decathlon, in essence, an 11-event meet. She runs 15.63, not bad but not as fast as her first heat. “So now I’m a little concerned about where I’m going as far as the record,” she says.
The discus doesn’t go well. She’s hoping to throw 22 meters, but her best is 17.78, which she calls “pitiful.” Up next is the pole vault. She realizes later that her underperformance in the hurdles and discus is a reflection of her anxiety about the vault.
Hanscom cleared 2.4 meters in her record-setting meet. Last year Scott cleared 1.8. “I knew there was an outside chance I could get a 2.4 if I pulled off a miracle like I’d pulled off three miracles the day before,” she says. “But I would be happy with anything better than 1.80.” She clears four heights in a row without a miss, ending with 2.15.
She figures if she runs an 8-minute 1,500 she’ll earn enough points to attain the record. Last year she ran 7:36.
“The stress was way off,” she says. “Now it was sheer guts. I just had to finish it.
No cramps. No falling down. Nothing like that. I just had to do an 8-minute 1,500, and I knew I could do that.”
She finishes in 7:04.39, fastest of all the women of any age at the meet. She knows she’s broken Hanscom’s record and figures she’s set a new world’s best, but she doesn’t yet know her total.
The competitors huddle for photos and, for the first time, the officials announce the points.
Daphne Scott: 7221. They don’t say seven thousand, two-hundred and twenty-one. They say 7221, which beat Hanscom’s previous U.S. record by 275 points.
Scott begins to cry. The others think she’s crying because she achieved the record. But it’s much more personal than that.
A beloved uncle, who was a world-champion motocross rider, was killed in a race. His race number was 72. Scott’s birth date is July 21. That’s also the date her grandmother died. 7221.
“I was crying because it was confirmation to me that my gran’s spirit and my uncle’s spirit was with me,” she says. “They were my guardian angels and with me the whole decathlon. I knew right away I’d had a bunch of spiritual support, from my grandmother, who I was very close with, and my uncle, who I adored. He was a champion, so he knew what racing was about. So to end up with that figure, given in that way, was extra special.”
Scott had hoped for a perfect decathlon, PRs in every event, which would have totaled more than 7,700 points. “I thought, woah, it would be a miracle if I did something like that,” she says.
“Little did I know I got my miracle, but it was a 7221, with a whole bunch of minor miracles lined up in there.”
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