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Mike Downey

Slaney Bounces Back, Running to Olympics--'88 and '92 Games

May 16, 1987|Mike Downey

It was Mary Teresa Decker Slaney's first Mother's Day as a mother, so, while she was out serving as honorary starter at a race in New York, Richard Slaney bundled up their nearly year-old daughter, Ashley Lynn, with the arms that once made him England's strongest discus thrower, went shopping in Manhattan and bought his wife a purse.

It might not be something she could use on her job, but she would appreciate it just the same.

Less than a week later, Mary Slaney would find herself in Los Angeles, back in the general vicinity where she had been a baby. Here, her own mother, Jackie Decker, who still lives in Orange County, could come to today's Pepsi Invitational meet at UCLA if she cared to, because her world famous, distance-running daughter would be competing on a track for the first time in more than a year and a half.

"I just talked to my mother and she said, 'I'm really excited that you're going to be here . . . you and the baby,' " Mary Decker Slaney said, laughing. "She can't kid me. I know which one of us she can't wait to see."

Having recovered from giving birth as well as some nagging injuries that followed, Mary Slaney is back on her feet, back on the track. She heads a mile field that includes Linda Detlefson Sheskey, Mary Knicely, Angela Chalmers and Sylvia Mosqueda in the meet, where she will take a whack at her own world record.

Slaney hasn't run competitively on a track since September 1985, when she ran in a Grand Prix final at Rome, site of the World Championships this August, and in an exhibition 800 meters at Seoul, site of next year's Olympic Games.

A month before that, Slaney stepped off a 4:16.71 in a world-class meet at Zurich, a women's record for the mile. Among those she defeated that day were top rivals Maricica Puica of Romania and Zola Budd of Great Britain, and it was the highlight of an undefeated 1985 season.

As some will remember, Slaney was not undefeated in 1984. During the Olympic 3,000-meter final at the Coliseum, she got tangled up with Budd's bare feet, went sprawling and was left bawling in the infield as the gold medal got away. Her husband had to carry her off. That was the last time many Americans saw Mary Decker run.

The months that followed were not easy. One of America's great athletes became the object of cruel jokes and scorn. Magazines gave her dubious achievement awards such as "Year's Sorest Loser" and "Whiner of the Year."

Tantrums of old were recalled, like the time she threw a baton at a Soviet runner who cut in front of her during a meet in Moscow.

Even her former husband, marathon runner Ron Tabb, got nasty, putting a message on his answering machine that said:

"Here is today's Trivial Pursuit question. What American athlete fell flat on her face during the women's 3,000-meter race during the Olympics? If you get the right answer, you're entitled to a Mary Decker doll. But it does have a flaw. It has a tendency to fall down when it tries to run. But we've developed the Richard Slaney doll to pick it up and put it on its feet again. If you want to order it, leave your name and number after the beep."

In those hours after the collision, 1988 must have seemed a million years away. But leap years creep up on you. One day you turn around and obscure presidential candidates are out stumping and the World Championships are coming up around the next curve and you know that another Olympics is not all that far away.

"It has crept up, definitely," Slaney says. "Especially since I spent almost an entire year being pregnant. Now here's the World Championships coming up already."

As for the next Olympics, Slaney does not see them as any sort of last hurrah or as a venue for vengeance. She hasn't stuck around the track this long just to get even with Zola Budd.

"I have every intention of running in the 1992 Olympics, also," Slaney said.

The years since the Coliseum race having provided some time for perspective, Slaney now takes the stance that what happened between her and Budd will, at the very least, generate more interest in the next Olympics and in women's track in general.

Promoters, too, understand that the 1984 incident adds drama to almost anything Slaney does from now on, that there is a human-interest angle beyond her record-breaking times.

Slaney, naturally, would prefer to be known for her accomplishments. She will take another crack at the 3,000 meters in Korea, and hopes to get the gold medal that was unavailable to her in 1972, when she was too young; in 1976, when she was injured; in 1980, when she was unable to attend because of the boycott, and in 1984, when she hit the deck.

The fall and rise of Mary Decker would be complete if she could keep moving and improving long enough to become the first woman to run a 4-minute mile.

She knows it is going to happen. Somebody is going to be the female Roger Bannister. "I feel it will happen in 8 to 10 years, maybe sooner," she said. "Maybe a lot sooner."

That, too, should be a big attention getter for women's track.

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