Mary Decker, an American idol
Mary Decker Slaney doesn't obsess anymore about not winning an Olympic medal.
She was barely too young to make the Olympic track and field team in 1972, injured in 1976, sidelined by the U.S. boycott in 1980, fell in an epic-drama 3,000-meter final in 1984, was still recovering from injury in 1988, didn't qualify in 1992 and was into her athletic twilight years in 1996.
She has no harsh thoughts toward anyone, least of all Zola Budd, her reluctant co-star on that fateful night in 1984 at the Los Angeles Games.
"I never had a successful Olympics despite being on four Olympic teams," Slaney said. "But that wasn't supposed to be my path, I guess. I don't dislike my life or myself -- or anyone else for that matter -- because of '84. That's just what happened. It wasn't something that was deliberate."
She readily admits this wasn't a perspective she always had.
"It takes a long time, it really does," she said. Then, chuckling, she added, "But it's almost 30 years ago, and that is a long time."
She understands that some will always think of her as "that runner who fell." The image of her on the infield of the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1984 -- crying in anguish, another Olympic dream dashed after she tripped in close proximity to Budd -- is seared into their brains.
Yet, that is so very far from being the sum total of her story, which is chronicled in the Nine for IX documentary film "Runner" (premieres Tuesday on ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). She remains the most accomplished female middle-distance runner in American history.
Slaney's rise started in the 1970s, when running had an explosion of popularity nationwide. Her peak years coincided with the Cold War still at its heights, a time when all sports events involving the United States and Eastern Bloc countries carried an unavoidable political subtext.
Slaney turned 55 on Aug. 4, and there still hasn't been another Mary Decker. Her good friend, marathoner Alberto Salazar, coaches a stable of Olympic hopefuls and one of them might ... well, maybe ...
"Her name is Mary, oddly enough," Slaney said about teenage phenom Mary Cain. "He thinks she may be the one to break some of my American records in middle distance. I find it surprising that someone hasn't. I think it's time for American women's middle-distance running to make that next step."
At one point, Slaney owned every American record from 800 to 10,000 meters. She still holds the U.S. marks for the 1,500, the mile and 3,000. In 1982, she set six world records in distances ranging from a mile to 10,000 meters.
The following August, Slaney won both the 1,500 and 3,000-meter titles at the first World Championships -- dubbed the "Decker Double" -- by beating everyone, even the best of the Soviets. In November of that year, millions of Americans spent a somber Sunday night watching "The Day After," a TV movie that depicted the horrific effects of a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union.
With that "a-step-away-from-Armageddon" backdrop, athletic accomplishments in the international arena often took on a larger-than-life feel. Since the timing was part of her mystique, how can there ever be another Mary Decker?
No American woman has ever won an Olympic medal in the 1,500, 3,000 or 5,000 (which replaced the 3,000 in 1996). No other American woman has won two middle-distance races at the same World Championships; in fact, only three other U.S. women have taken any medals at those races.
"For me, winning the world titles was a huge gratification personally," Slaney said. "A lot of people in the sport, their comments had been, 'She can run against Americans, but if it comes down to a sprint, she can't beat the Russians.' I had a lot to prove."
'Who do you look up to?'
In 1981, when I was 16, an athletic-shoe store near me put up a poster of Mary Decker, and I would periodically pester them about it. They couldn't sell it to me, they said, because it was a promotional item.
So instead, I created my own "poster" -- a bulletin board filled with magazine covers, newspaper clippings and a few photos I had acquired.
When you're 48, some of the things that enthralled you as a teenager seem laughably ludicrous. "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns?" I spent how many hours watching that glacially moving afternoon nonsense? Can I please get some of that time back?
But other things that captivated my youth still make sense through the long lens of adulthood. I idolized Slaney. That's not the least bit goofy. How many other female sports heroes were there then?
"I didn't think about that at the time; I didn't see myself on any pedestal," Slaney says now. "But I also know that when people asked me then, 'Who do you look up to? Who do you want to emulate?,' it was always the men -- like Jim Ryun, Roger Bannister, John Walker.
"I think it's just because there weren't a lot of those women, or more so, that you didn't know about them. We were barely there. Now I go to events, and 70 percent of the participants are women, and it's so much fun to see them having a great time, doing something good for themselves. In the early '70s, I'd go for a run on the road and get the weirdest looks from people."
As a competitor, I started so young and the Olympics was all I could think about. Then you realize things don't always happen the way you want them to, but the sun comes up the next morning and you move on to the next thing.Mary Decker
Title IX was signed into law in 1972, and there was a lot of catching up for women's athletics to do. The media coverage of female athletes had to catch up, too.
From 1977-83, when I was in junior high and high school, the female athletes who received some consistent attention in the United States were mostly in tennis, like Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin, and golfer Nancy Lopez.
For most of that time, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women governed women's collegiate sports, but I never actually saw an AIAW game of any kind, in person or on TV.
Prodded by Title IX, Colorado started its women's track program in 1975, and Slaney competed there from 1977-79. She was an AIAW champion in cross country (1978) and indoor track (1,000 meters, 1978). Then, she left school and moved to Eugene, Ore., to train, and a national story line that had started with her receiving attention as a young teen runner began to grow even more.
Slaney was one of those few oases for me in an arid landscape of female sports heroes. Back then, track and field got a little more mainstream media coverage than it does now. And there were track-specific publications, like Runner's World, that kept me up-to-date.
"I wasn't aware of it then, but now I realize that I gave younger girls some inspiration," Slaney said. "Someone who they could look at and say, 'I want to be as good or better than her.'"
I knew all of her best times, most triumphant races and star-crossed Olympic history. When Slaney went into the 3,000 final at the 1984 Olympics, it was tantamount to my favorite team being in the Super Bowl or World Series.
It was finally her turn. Nothing was going to get in her way this time.
So, when I had the chance to see an early preview of "Runner," I wanted to stop it right after Slaney won the 1983 worlds double in Helsinki, Finland. I felt myself getting tense, agitated. I didn't want to relive the pre-Olympics media frenzy over the South African barefoot waif, Budd, who seems, in retrospect, a sad pawn manipulated by so many people.
I didn't want to see the 1984 Olympic 3,000 again, or remember yelling nonsensically at the TV, "No, no! Mary fell! They have to stop and start over!" Or recall hitting my fists on my legs and bursting into tears.
But I did watch, and thought about why it had upset me so much. I was irrationally mad then at Budd, and even more furious when some media people began calling Slaney a "whiner," and saying she should have "handled it all better." In the immediate crushing disappointment -- no Olympics medal again -- how gracious would they have been?
I still keep that with me now; I try to always remember that athletes at their most upset should not be judged without compassion and empathy. That said, I was just starting in sports writing then, covering track and cross-country for my college's student newspaper. I hadn't learned yet to distance myself, to become an observer and chronicler, to not be too affected by who won or lost. That mindset definitely would come to me in this job.
But in watching the documentary and talking with Slaney, going back to that time in my mind, I can recall what it was like to be a passionate and innocent pure fan, with no objectivity template. It's somewhat like another life to me. And 1984 seems that way to Slaney, too.
"I look back on it, and it feels like it was a different lifetime," Slaney said. "Sports is what it is because it has drama, and people are watching because they enjoy drama. If everybody knew exactly who was going to win and how fast we would run, it would become boring, for spectators and athletes."
'It's what I am, who I am'
Slaney married her husband, British discus thrower Richard Slaney, in 1985. They had a daughter, Ashley, in 1986. Mary and Richard live in Eugene now on 55 acres.
You might see her go past riding her ElliptiGo, an elliptical machine on wheels that allows you to approximate running without the impact. It's a way for those with bodies battered from years of pounding into pavement, dirt, cinders and rubberized track surfaces to still "run."
"You're outdoors, you can do hills and intervals; it's given me a whole new outlet for what I've done all my life," Slaney said. "I can train hard. Basically, it's for peace of mind and fitness. It's what I am, who I am.
"We have four dogs and three cats, so it's a job taking care of the household pets," she added. "I have a huge vegetable garden, and I grow flowers, too. I also quilt and sew. Now I have time to sit in my sewing room and make things. I love doing that."
Slaney had a protracted legal battle with the International Association of Athletics Federations, track's world governing body, in the mid-1990s after a test showed she had a higher testosterone-to-epitestosterone level than allowable, resulting in a two-year ban. She said the test was flawed because it did not correctly measure the effects of birth-control pills. She was reinstated by the U.S. Track and Field Association, but ended up being stripped of a silver medal from the 1997 World Championships by the IAAF. She never conceded taking any banned substances. (The T/E ratio test has since been revised.)
Slaney held out a hope that she could possibly make one last Olympic team in 2000 when she was 42 years old. To that end, she had yet another surgery around 1998, which included re-routing the tendons to her toes. The idea was to take stress off the lower legs that had troubled her so much throughout her career.
It didn't work. It actually made things worse.
"It took close to a year until I could walk straight, let alone jog," Slaney said. "I went through several years of physical therapy, strength training; I tried everything. Nothing gave me the strength in my lower legs again. With tendon re-routing, I can't flex my toes. I've always been a toe runner, so it completely destroyed the way I run. I can't run. I can jog."
But even slow-paced jogging caused stress-fracture issues, which frustrated her. Then she discovered the ElliptiGo. And if someday there are ElliptiGo races, you can bet Slaney will be involved in them.
"Now I ride my ElliptiGo two, three, four hours a day," Slaney said. "What I miss most about not competing at an elite level is that I love training. I never thought I had to do it. I felt like, 'I get to do this, and when that stopped, it took away part of who I am."
If some genius surgeon promised that one more procedure might let her really run again?
"Not that I could compete at a high level anymore," Slaney said. "But if I could just go out and get that same feeling from a hard 10-mile run or whatever? Yeah, I would do it."
Track's World Championships are this week in Moscow. It's the 30th anniversary of the "Decker Double." Slaney may watch some of the competition, but said, "It's hard for me to pay too much attention, because I still do miss it so much.
"But I've never looked behind me in terms of my accomplishments. I think that's why I moved on after '84. I didn't want to be bitter and not enjoy what I was doing anymore, so 1985 was my best season ever, performance-wise.
"As a competitor, I started so young and the Olympics was all I could think about. Then you realize things don't always happen the way you want them to, but the sun comes up the next morning and you move on to the next thing."