Emily Scott overcomes humble beginnings to realize Olympic dream - NBC Sports

Emily Scott overcomes humble beginnings to realize Olympic dream
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January 27, 2014, 3:15 am

The brightness of her dream — Emily Scott has a hard time explaining that part. There was something about the Olympics. The colors. The flags. The crowds. The Olympics mean different things to different people, of course, but she saw the athletes and she felt this overwhelming longing. Those Olympians made it. That might be the closest phrase to what she felt. They made it. Those athletes, the skaters and the skiers, the runners and the jumpers, the swimmers and the gymnasts, they were at the center of the world. They made it. This was the biggest thing she could imagine.

It all seemed silly in a way, so distant from her own life, so far away from her place in southwest Missouri, so disconnected from the day-to-day world she knew. And yet, somehow, she believed — she could not stop believing — that the Olympics were her destiny. She would make it. She had to make it. She could not explain it.

Somehow, her father understood.

* * *

When was the first little miracle? Probably it was the little boots. Craig Scott works with signs in Springfield, Mo. He will put up a golden arches sign at a new McDonald’s or just hang up “No parking” signs on brick walls. “Anything with signs,” he says. He has spent his life working outside mounting signs or fixing signs or removing signs, whether it is zero degrees or 100, and it is often one or the other in Springfield. He will tell you he has never made much, doesn’t have much, goes “paycheck to paycheck.”

“I”m just a working man,” he says. “I’ve worked a lot of overtime.

“My whole life,” his youngest daughter Emily Scott says, “he’s never gotten anything for himself.”

Emily was one of the kids who needed to be in motion. “She was always on the move, you know, from the first time she went on a Big Wheel,” Craig says. In those empty afternoons when Craig worked in town, Emily’s older sister Bridgett would end up Skateport — her best friend was the owner’s daughter. Skateport was the roller rink in town. You’ve never been there, but you still know the place from you own life — pinball machines and video games, a place for kids to make suicide pop with every soda flavor in one cup, crackling dance music thumping over the speakers and a rink that would get cleared every now and again for couples dances. Emily tagged along, much to Bridgett’s dismay. She was a natural. She was, Craig remembered, the fastest little thing on four-wheel skates.

“When she can beat me in a race,” grumped Bridgett, six years older, “I’m retiring.”

Bridgett would retire from racing at age 15.

Emily competed in all the little roller skating races at Skateport. One day — Emily was probably 6 or so — the family went to a skating meet and Craig saw a guy going up to pick up this little pair of inline skating boots he had ordered. Inlines! Craig thought, “How fast could Emily go on those kinds of skates?” The odd thing is they looked to be exactly Emily’s size.

“Well, the guy didn’t like them,” Craig says. “He didn’t want them. I happened to be up there, and I guess I was looking at those boots. He looked at me, and he said, ‘Here you can have these boots.’ I think he said it just to make the guy mad.”

And so begins little miracles.

* * *

The first time Carol went to prison, Emily was in the third grade. A girl that age doesn’t understand everything. But Emily understood enough. Her mother was a methamphetamine addict and trafficker. She was unstable, out of control, unable to deal with life. Emily’s time with her had been bewildering and sometimes frightening and always unsteady. “Everyone chooses a path,” Emily says gently. “Unfortunately that was her path.”

When Carol went to prison, Emily moved in with her father Craig. Third grade. What did he know about raising little girls? “I’ll tell you what, it’s like anything,” he says. “You learn as you go along.” In the mornings, Craig would pick out his young daughter’s outfits for school. He would tie the girls’ hair up in ponytails — “I got pretty good at that, I found out that they like that ponytail high on their heads, they didn’t want them down low,” he says. More than anything, he would remind Emily, in some small way, that she was special. And she had a destiny.

When Carol was released from prison two years later, she tried to stay sober. But she did not know how to live. She was homeless for a while. “She couldn’t take care of us,” Emily says. “She couldn’t take care of herself.”

Emily threw herself into her inline skating. “She may not look it,” Craig says, “but she’s an animal when it comes to training.” Emily would train for hours every day at Skateport and then, in the evenings Craig would drive her to a nearby grocery store and she would skate there until it got dark. In time, the grocery store owner would leave his parking lot lights on an extra hour so that Emily could train a little longer.

She was tireless. Emily’s best inline skating event was 15,000 meters — a little bit more than nine miles — because she never wore down. Ever. She and her father went around the country in a pickup truck looking for races. That often meant waking up at 2 or 3 a.m. and driving to far-off places like Buffalo. Craig drove, Emily looked at the map and directed. “She got pretty good at it,” Craig says. “She needed to be because I get nervous in those situations, you know, where I don’t know where I am. She took care of me.”

When Emily was entering high school she left home and went to Florida to train year round. When she was 16, she went to Suzhou, China for the World Speed Championships and won a gold medal as a junior. Sometimes, she wanted to quit. Sometimes she wanted to just slow down and be like her friends.

“He would remind me, ‘It’s not every day people get to leave their state and are able to travel around the United States and even the world,’” Emily says. “He would tell me that I needed to hold on to my dream.”

* * *

All along, Emily and Craig and lots of people in the community believed that inline skating would become a summer Olympic event. There were times, through the years, when it seemed to be on the brink of happening. But it still hasn’t happened. “They always put in some fuddy-duddy sport instead,” Craig says.

At this point, Craig was ready to give up on the Olympics. Emily was living a fascinating life as a skater — the way he saw it she didn’t need the Olympics. She had good sponsors, she was as successful as any female inline skater in America. She was traveling the world, something Craig loved. He wasn’t a traveler himself — he rarely left Springfield — but it made him feel good that his daughter was out there, seeing everything.

“He always wanted something better for me,” Emily says. “He always wanted me to live this big life, I guess.”

Then, one day in 2008, Emily called him and said that she was making a switch to speed skating on ice. “I didn’t really like it to be honest with you,” Craig said. “But she wanted those Olympics. She always wanted those Olympics.”

Emily went to work with Derek Parra, a pioneering inline skater who had made the switch from wheels to ice and and won two medals at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Parra switched to long track speed skating and that’s what Emily tried at first. Her endurance seemed to fit the sport, but she didn’t like long track at all. “I don’t like skating alone,” she said. “I like to have the feel of racers all around me. I like the feeling that I’m racing against people.” After a month or so, she was ready to quit.

And one more time, Craig would not let her quit.

“Dad said, ‘Give it one more strong month,” Emily says. “Then you decide.”

“She’s not a quitter,” Craig says. “She wouldn’t have quit no matter what I said.’

Emily moved to short track speed skating. With the racing on a short oval and so many skaters bunched together and the constant possibility of crashes, it is sometimes called the NASCAR of skating. Emily felt more at home. The transition still was absurdly difficult. “On ice,” she says, “you never really have a chance to rest. On wheels, you can coast along sometimes, get a good draft. But on ice, if you’re not moving, you’re losing speed. You’re in this position that causes so much pain in your leg. There were so many times I had doubts about it.”

She went to her first Olympic trials before the 2010 Olympics and finished tenth. Instead of feeling discouraged by her place, she actually felt more hopeful. She was closer to making the Olympics than at any point in her life.

At the same time, her mother, Carol, and her half-sister Telisha, went back to prison for meth manufacturing and trafficking.

“I guess in my life I always knew there were two roads,” Emily says. “I wanted the higher road.”

* * *

A year ago, Emily Scott lost almost all of her funding. There were numerous problems at U.S. Speedkating — speedskater Simon Cho admitted to tampering with a competitor’s skate, speedkating coach Jae Su Chun was forced to resign after alleged physical and verbal abuse,  financially the group was a shambles — and Scott’s funding was cut from almost $2,000 a month to $600. Her apartment in Salt Lake City costs $500 a month. Even with her job at a surgical supply factory, she could not make ends meet.

“Scared?” she asks. “Yes. Of course I was scared. I was in panic mode. I felt like everything I had worked so hard for so many years was crashing down.”

“It will work out,” Craig told Emily every day. “It always does.” But quietly he was looking for a part-time job to help support her. Emily applied for food stamps. Someone told her about a site called “GoFundMe.com” where people could help support her dream. “People told me I had a unique story,” she says. “They said to ask people to help me. I didn’t have any choice.” She hoped to raise $15,000. In the first two and a half months, she had received a grand total of $190, all from friends including the people over at Skateport in Springfield.

“It will work out, it always does,” Craig kept telling her. And then, another one of those little miracles. USA Today wrote something about her efforts to make the Olympic team. It mentioned the food stamps and the mother in prison and the supportive father and the GoFundMe site. And people — hundreds and hundreds of people — began donating.

“Go Emily Go,” wrote Nancy, who donated $75.

“Hi, I read about you in USA Today this morning,” wrote Stephenie VanHellemont, and she donated $100.

“Hope with our donations u can bring home the gold,” wrote Carroll Walls, who donated $100.

Anonymous donors offered $1,000, $2,500 — a man named James Wigginton, who wrote that he was involved with the USOC through Tae Kwon Do, donated $4,000. But mostly the donations were smaller, $10 here, $5 there. The money piled up. Soon, the numbers soared past her $15,000 goal and kept climbing, past $20,000, past $30,000, past $40,000. At last check, she had raised $48,735.

“The people who donated will never know how much it means to me,” she says. “I wrote every one of them a personal email thanking them, but no amount of thank yous would ever be enough. They will never understand how much it did, I’ll never be able to thank them as much as I want to thank them.”

The money was enough to keep her training but there was enough left over for another dream, something that seemed impossible just a few months earlier. Three weeks ago, in Salt Lake City, Scott finished second at 500 meters and at 1,500 meters to clinch her Olympic spot. “I’m speechless,” she said when told she had made the team. Craig was in the stands watching and maybe crying a little bit.

“Someone took a picture of five or six of us in the stands,” Craig said. “We didn’t know they took the picture. Oh, man, the looks on our faces — our arms are flailing. I wish I had that picture back. If we had known they were taking a picture of us, we might have been a little bit more civil. But this was our goal. This was everything.”

Shortly after making the team, Emily Scott decided to spring for her final dream.

She wanted her Dad to come to Sochi with her.

* * *

They’re closing Skateport in Springfield. There’s a traffic bottleneck there, and the Missouri Department of Transportation is reworking all the roads there. Nobody knows if they will reopen it somewhere else. “I can’t believe it’s closing,” Emily says. “I wouldn’t really say it was huge, but it meant the world to the community who went there. We are all a bit like family.”

Emily talks to her mother once or twice a month in prison. “She got to watch me race in prison,” Emily says. “She’s very proud of me. The way I look at it, you only get one mother. I’ve been supporting her best I can.”

And Craig Scott is 55 years old, still working with signs. The sign company where he worked closed down five years ago, and he has had to start over with another company. He likes the people, says they treat him fair. He hopes to retire in eight years so he can sit at home and hunt and fish. “You know, those are the things I love to do,” he says.

“How proud am I of Emily?” he asks. “Let me tell you something. She would do whatever it takes. I’ve seen her skating on bloody feet. I’ve seen her skate with pain that would have stopped me, I wouldn’t have gone on those boots and done it. You wouldn’t know it to look at her. But she will out-train anyone. I mean, anyone!

“But proud? Shoot I’d be proud of her if she never put on skates. She was always a good girl. She was never any problems, she got good grades, was never any trouble. I never had to worry about her.”

“I tell my Dad, ‘Happy Mother’s Day,” Emily says. “And I tell him ‘Happy Father’s Day,’ too.”

Craig Scott is going to Sochi to watch his daughter skate. He’s never flown overseas before. He’s barely flown at all. He has never been out of the country.

“All our travel used to be in my pickup truck,” he says.

“To say he’s nervous is not strong enough,” Emily says.

“Well, you know, I’m excited and I’m nervous,” Craig says. “I don’t know which one I’m more of. I guess I’m more excited. I’m pretty nervous too, though.”

Here’s how Craig Scott will get to Sochi. He will board a plane in Kansas City and go to Chicago. From Chicago he will go to Washington. From Washington he flies to Turkey. From Turkey he flies to Germany. From Germany he flies to Sochi.

That’s five stops, if you are scoring at home, and Craig Scott says he’s got a million thoughts of worry on his mind. But, like he says, this is everything.

“I’ll tell you what, if I make it all the way to Russia without a hitch,” he says, ‘that would be a miracle.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

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