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In the Same Boat

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VIKKI SCOTT REMEMBERS HOW NERVOUS she felt in 1989 during a preliminary tryout for the U.S. rowing team. The competition itself was tough enough, but she also worried that the head coach would spot her telltale strands of gray hair and ask her age. So she doused her head with brown rinse. Midway through a workout, she chanced to reach up and wipe her face—and then saw the rinse covering her hand. “I was really panicking out there,” she recalls with a laugh. “Luckily nobody noticed.”

People certainly notice Vikki Scott now. At 42, Scott—who, after two years of trying, finally “made the boat” last month—is the oldest woman ever to be selected for the U.S. national rowing team. But that’s only half of it. Vikki’s son, Jason, 21, also qualified for the team, in the men’s heavyweight division. According to the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Scotts—who will be rowing this week at the Pan Am Games in Havana—are the only mother and son ever to compete on the same national team—in the same year.

More impressive is the fact that four years ago Vikki looked more like an insurance risk than an athlete. She smoked a pack and a half a day and was 30 pounds over her current weight of 130 (at a family reunion, one of her three brothers compared her to “a beached whale”). A single parent since Jason, her only child, was a toddler, Vikki divided her energies between motherhood and her job as a development associate with the Red Cross, first in Seattle and later in Washington, D.C. As Jason neared college, she realized she would soon be alone. Says Vikki: “I started to ask myself, ‘How do I prepare to go through this transition?’ ”

Having made no attachment to a sport during her youth in Iowa, she decided to try rowing, like Jason, who was a high school rowing sensation in Alexandria, Va. Vikki’s friends were convinced she didn’t have both oars in the water. She started out training on land, on a rowing machine. A year later she set a world record in the 40-and-over division at the Mid-Atlantic rowing machine “sprints.”

Good scores on the machine, however, do not necessarily translate into speed on the water. Vikki had the strength and determination; what she lacked was finesse, mastery of the fragile balance of the two-person shell. In 1990, as her rowing prowess increased, she moved to Philadelphia to get better coaching and pursue her dream of making the national team. In the process she was forced to give up her Red Cross job and borrow nearly $20,000 from friends (Jason has a tuition scholarship to Boston University, but Vikki pays room and board). Says Vikki: “I couldn’t help thinking, ‘What’s this all about? Here I am trying to support my son in college and I don’t even have a job.’ But something kept telling me I could do it.” She did. On July 7, just three days after Jason qualified for Havana, she became one of six women—out of an original 90 aspirants—to be selected for the two national lightweight boats.

Nevertheless, some of Vikki’s friends continue to think she’s crazy to push herself so hard at 42. She says they just don’t understand. “To me, there is no pain or drudgery in rowing whatsoever,” says Vikki. “There is the aesthetic value, the challenge of trying to match the rhythm of another physical being while trying to achieve flow in the movement of the boat. You’re always looking for the perfect row.”