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Recalled: The Legacy of Verne Scott

While his son might be more well-known as a world champion athlete, Verne helped shape the sport in the U.S.

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This week, USA Triathlon announced the 11th induction class of its USAT Hall of Fame. Olympic gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen, two-time Olympian Laura Bennett, and age-group multisport athletes Lesley Cens-McDowell and Robert Plant join an exclusive crew of just 43 other Hall of Famers. Among those? One of the very first people inducted back in 2008, Verne Scott, who played a pivotal role in shaping the sport starting in the 1970s. Here’s a look at Scott’s storied contributions as a true pioneer of  triathlon. 

In September of 1976, the Dolphin Club in San Francisco organized a triathlon at the Aquatic Cove and on Fisherman’s Wharf. The plan? A one-mile swim, a 14-mile bike along the Embarcadero, and a five-mile run out to the San Francisco Yacht Club and back. Word about the race eventually traveled to the pool deck at UC Davis, 75 miles north of San Francisco. The coach of the Masters team there, a 22-year-old water polo player named Dave Scott, encouraged his swimmers to join him in entering. He also told his dad, Verne, a professor in the water, science, and engineering department at UC Davis and an avid swimmer, having picked up the sport in his 50s. So the two Scotts, plus nine Davis Masters swimmers headed to San Francisco to give this thing called triathlon a try. 

The San Francisco race was no-frills, perhaps a bit disjointed, and, aside from the swim, bike, and run format, nothing like the triathlons of today. (“There was no mention of wetsuits, [course] monitors, paramedics or directional signs, nutrition, water stops, anything like that,” Verne Scott recalled.) But the experience was enough to pique the interest of both Scotts—and ultimately set them on a path to become legends of the sport in their own, unique ways: Verne, as a leader and visionary; Dave as a world-class athlete and the first-ever six-time Ironman World champion.

It was at the 1983 Hawaii Ironman, where Verne had traveled to support Dave in one of those record-setting wins, when he was asked to helm the U.S. Triathlon Association. Established just a year before, the national governing body of the sport (later renamed Triathlon Federation USA, or Tri Fed, before becoming USA Triathlon) aimed to provide guidance and aid in developing the sport, as well as create bylaws and guidelines for sanctioning events. While the sport was booming (Tri Fed membership hit 1,500 within its first year), the board was struggling to gain footing with a lack of solid leadership. 

The affable, outgoing, and organized Verne was a natural choice for the board’s top spot. 

Already well versed in the sport—aside from racing and racking up his own age-group wins, he launched the Davis Triathlon, growing it from 240 participants to 680—he was extremely passionate about triathlon and wanted to extoll its benefits from a larger platform.

“I felt some sense of trying to pay back for the great experiences I personally had and felt like the sport had great potential,” he said. “I wanted to encourage [others] to get into triathlon as a means to maintain fitness.”

Verne certainly followed through on that goal. During his tenure as executive director between 1984 to 1987, the Tri Fed membership ballooned to 34,000. In addition, he played pivotal roles in shaping the sport to become what it is today, establishing rules and regulations on everything from helmets to drafting to forbidding pacing on the run to having referees on the race course. Verne oversaw the launch of the US Triathlon Series (USTS) Championship, a slate of big-money races around the country that catapulted the careers of many professionals. As early as 1985, Verne contributed to conversations and set the ball rolling for triathlon to become an Olympic event (which would ultimately happen in 2000) and he worked on a campaign to have Tri Fed recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), a plan that would take nearly a decade due to USOC’s concern about the sport’s ability to “become an international sporting activity.” (For what it’s worth, 55 women and men from 38 nations qualified for the Olympic triathlon races in 2021, and Ironman has races on every continent but Antarctica.)

Verne Scott’s time with Tri Fed may have been brief, but his fingerprints are still visible all over the sport. And he continued to contribute to the multisport community as an athlete, a promoter of various races, and the director of the USA Triathlon History Committee well into his 80s. Verne, who passed away at the age of 96 in December of 2020, carried the energy and joie de vivre he brought to triathlon into about everything he did (just before he died, he bought a scooter to get out and about and perhaps meet a new person along the way and share a conversation,” according to his obituary.)

For all he accomplished, Verne stayed modest, eschewing attention or praise. In an interview conducted shortly after his USAT Hall of Fame induction, he credited his fellow board members and other volunteers for their vision and willingness to devote untold hours to legitimizing the sport and establishing a thriving governing body.  

“That is something I probably wouldn’t have thought possible,” he said of the growth of triathlon under his helm and beyond. “But I hoped it would.”