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Ready for the long run.

Byline: Ron Bellamy The Register-Guard

The letters and packages come from all over the country, and all over the world, sometimes two or three a week, sometimes that many day after day.

With the barest of essentials - "To Mary Decker, Eugene, Or." - they find Mary Decker Slaney here, thanking her for her great performances in track and field, asking for autographs, sending old magazine covers for her to inscribe and, recently, a set of warmups from the Olympic Games for her to sign.

People still remember Mary Slaney.

They remember her from 1973, when she was "little Mary Decker," only 14 then, her hair in pigtails, her teeth in braces, weighing only 89 pounds and an emerging force in U.S. track and field in the year before she would win a high-profile 800 against the Soviets and throw a baton, twice, at a Soviet runner.

They remember her two gold medals in the first IAAF World Championships in 1983, when she defeated Soviet runners each time, including a gritty homestretch drive past Zamira Zaitseva in the 1,500 meters, a finish so thrilling that Sports Illustrated published an eight-photo sequence that spanned two pages.

They remember that she set many world records though, like the runner herself, they probably aren't sure exactly how many, and neither are officials at USA Track & Field. Close to 20 indoor and outdoor world records, perhaps, to go with 36 American records.

They remember that she won the Sullivan Award as this country's top amateur athlete in 1982. That she was Sports Illustrated's Sportswoman of the Year for 1983, when she also won the Jesse Owens Award.

They remember her fall in the 3,000 meters in the 1984 Olympics, the entanglement with Zola Budd, the tears that followed.

They remember her brilliant 1985 outdoors season - a world record, four American records, a Grand Prix championship, a win every time she stepped on the track. For some time she held every American outdoors record from 800 meters through 10,000 meters, the only runner - man or woman - to have accomplished that, and she still holds American records for women at 1,500, 2,000 and 3,000 meters, and in the mile.

For all those accomplishments, Mary Slaney will be inducted Saturday into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, N.Y., part of a three-person class that also includes one of Slaney's childhood role models - the great miler, Jim Ryun - and four-time Olympian George Young, a compatriot of one of Slaney's longtime friends, former Oregon track coach Bill Dellinger.

It is the kind of honor that signifies the end of a career, and yet, less than a month from her 45th birthday, Slaney still trains intensely twice a day and still has goals - to compete in a marathon, perhaps this year - and she still loves to run.

Old friends

There is already a heavy Eugene presence in the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, established in 1998. The hall's Web site prominently displays the quote by the late Oregon distance runner, Steve Prefontaine - "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift" - and Pre is in that Hall of Fame, as are the late Oregon coach, Bill Bowerman, former Oregon distance runner Alberto Salazar and Dellinger.

These are people who have been, and are, very meaningful in the life of Mary Slaney.

"They are people who have been close and special to me," she said. "It makes me feel good to be that close to those people, to feel like I've achieved even remotely the same things that they have."

Prefontaine, who died in an auto accident in 1975, befriended young Mary Decker when she was a teen-age prodigy, becoming a mentor and protector. Salazar and Dellinger have been among Slaney's best friends and have, over the years, coached her as well.

And Bowerman, in the early 1980s, consulted from time to time with Slaney's coach then, Dick Brown, and came to some of her workouts, warning - in crusty, Bowerman-like fashion - that if she ran a workout too hard, as she was wont to do, he'd end it, then and there.

In 1983, when she returned triumphantly from Europe, Slaney gave Bowerman a ceremonial cow bell, presented to her after a race in Switzerland. Bowerman immediately tied it around one of his cows. Twenty years later, Slaney laughs fondly at the memory.

Her finest victories

This is an appropriate year to honor Mary Slaney, and later this month she will also be listed, for the first time, on the ballot for election to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame.

It is 30 years since she emerged in national and international competition; it is 20 years since the double-gold triumph in Helsinki.

In 1974, at 14, she set the world indoor record at 880 yards; that year she also set an indoor record at 1,000 yards, and bettered it several years later.

Slaney would, in the late 1970s, be beset by injuries, which set the tone for her career; if Slaney can't recall how many world records she's set, she's long ago lost track of surgeries.

By 1983, however, Mary Decker was a huge figure - at 5-feet-6 and somewhere between 106 and 110 pounds, her weight to this day - in track and field. She had set three world records in 1980 and eight in 1982, when she set the indoor mile mark three times and recorded two outdoor records - in the 5,000 and 10,000 - at Hayward Field.

"I think when it's all happening, you take it for granted, because you love what you're doing," Slaney said. "For me, every time I raced, it wasn't like I raced just to win. ... I would go into races with certain time goals in mind. I always tried my best. I didn't play around and be happy with just winning a race. To some degree, I get faulted for that, because I pushed all the time, but that's what Pre used to do.

"It's amazing how many letters I still get from people who say they loved to watch me run because they knew I was going to give my best."

But Slaney's dominance in this country, and her penchant for running in the front, led some to doubt how she would perform in the crucible of the first World Championships. Yet she won twice, each time running her way - taking the lead early - to capture the 3,000 and then the 1,500.

After Zaitseva passed her on the final turn of the 1,500, Slaney had to respond and did, drawing even with 10 meters to go and then surging past, her face a grimace as Zaitseva dived early and ended up rolling on the track.

On the BBC telecast, the British broadcaster called the final meters thusly:

"Mary Decker coming back! Running hard for the line! Zaitseva saved a bit! The American girl comes again! And again! AND AGAIN! And the Russian girl goes over! What a magnificent run for Mary Decker!"

"If I had to choose a single event, the World Championships in 1983 would be the best," Slaney said. "I've had other performances, in single races, but I think in '83 the rest of the world gained some respect for what I was able to do. Until then, people in the track community said, `Well, she can run fine against the Americans, and run fast against nobody, but she won't be able to compete against the Russians.'

"So I think it was pretty special."

For Slaney, 1983 is special for another reason, too: She met her husband-to-be, Richard, then a British discus thrower. They married Jan. 1, 1985, and his strength, in good times and bad, has given her strength. Their daughter, Ashley, is 17 now, her senior year of high school ahead, with college after that. In her family, Mary Slaney will tell you, she has been blessed.

"Richard doesn't begrudge me the fact that I love running," she said. "He was never jealous when I was at the top of the world and doing well. He was never intimidated by the attention that I would get. I think it takes a pretty strong guy to be able to handle those sort of things."

Disappointment, and a mission

An enduring image of the 1984 Olympics is the scene of Slaney becoming entangled with Budd as the South African runner passed her in the 3,000 meters - Slaney's stride striking Budd's back-kick and Slaney going down hard, her Olympic final over. There was a time when Slaney couldn't bear to watch that; when she saw it in her hotel room, the night of the race, it had a "surreal" quality - she saw things in the video that she didn't remember happening.

The episode is routinely described, in stories about Slaney, as "heartbreaking."

"Heartbreaking?" she echoes. "When I look back in it, and the way things have gone since 1984, I think '84 is probably the Olympics that I should have won, or that I could have won, I guess, had I not fallen down.

"Physically, everything was right then, and that's always been a goal, winning an Olympic medal, but in all seriousness, the Olympics don't mean what they used to mean either, to me personally. ... It's just not so clean and pure and wonderful.

"I look at it as history, Olympic history, and it truly feels like it was another lifetime ago. You look back on your life, and what were you doing in 1984, and whatever was going on in '84, was it that important to what's going on now?"

Slaney followed that disappointment with her last truly great season, in 1985 - a world record in the mile in Zurich, American records in the 5,000 and 1,000 in Eugene, in the 800 in Bern, Switzerland, and in the 3,000 in Rome. After her ill-fated attempt to let someone else take the lead in the 1984 Olympics, Slaney went back to racing her way, in front.

"In 1985, I felt like I was fit enough that I could react to anything anybody else did," she said. "If it went out fast, I felt I could handle that. If someone came up on me to kick, I could handle that. I always made it go out fast, because that's the way I ran, and I went into that season with the decision that I was going to run every race the way I wanted to run it.

"If someone was going to beat me in '85, they were going to run my race and do it my way, and if they beat me, they beat me, and I don't think I got beat in '85. I was on a mission."

The test mess

An Olympian in 1980, when the U.S. boycotted; an Olympian in 1984, when she fell; an Olympian in 1988, when she wasn't healthy; Slaney was an Olympian again in 1996, making the team at 5,000 meters. She'd come back from so many injuries, and then it seemed as if her career was in a renaissance - she won a silver medal in the 1,500 in the indoor World Championships in 1997 and was looking forward to the outdoor World Championships that year.

Behind the scenes, though, there was turmoil - her urine sample from the U.S. Olympic Trials showed an elevated ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, considered a possible indication of the use of a banned substance to enhance performance.

Slaney emphatically asserted her innocence and was joined by others who questioned the validity of the standard as it applied to older female athletes.

The story became public a year later, and though Slaney would be exonerated by USA Track & Field she was suspended for two years by the IAAF, the sport's international governing body. She filed suit against the IAAF, also naming the U.S. Olympic Committee, but the suit was ultimately dismissed without a trial.

That was the darkest period of Slaney's career.

"Occasionally I think about it, because I think it interfered with a few years (of competing healthy) that could have been really, really cool for me," she said. "Fun for me and fun for Richard. What happened took away some of the enthusiasm I have for the sport of track and field. Not for running itself, but for track and field, which in my mind is quite different.

"If I sit here and think about it, I could come up with a dozen things that I hate about what happened, but I don't do that because it doesn't help anything, and I think the only way to move forward is to leave the crap behind."

Another goal

Last summer, Slaney suffered her fourth stress fracture, this in her right fibula, in 2 1/2 years, but she's been injury-free since last fall and is now training with veteran Eugene running coach Mike Manley and, for the last couple of weeks, doing speed and biomechanical work with former Oregon assistant coach George Walcott.

After all her surgeries, Slaney is confronted with a challenge foreign to her career; it's as if, she said, her legs and feet have forgotten how to run fast. But she sees progress, and she's enthused to have the goal of running a marathon, to get on a starting line again and to compete again. She's had her weekly mileage up into the 70s again, at a 6:30 to 6:40 pace.

"I think you always have to have goals," she said. "At this point, I don't have anything to lose, and I don't have anything to prove. I run because I love running, and I'd love to compete again because I'm a competitive person."

For Slaney, a marathon would be new territory - "on the track, I'm always being compared with what I've done in the past" - just as running in her mid-40s is new territory.

"I don't feel so different than I felt 20 years ago, but I do know that it takes longer to heal from injuries, it takes longer to get well when I get sick," she said. "When I was a teen-ager, and even into my mid-30s, I didn't pay that much attention to nutrition. I ate how I felt. I took vitamins if I remembered. Now, I remember to take vitamins because I need to."

So Slaney makes some concessions to age, but not the concession that she can't continue to set lofty goals. Saturday, the National Distance Running Hall of Fame recognizes her past in her sport, even as she looks forward to the future.

SLANEY'S RECORD RUNS

WORLD RECORDS

1974

Indoor 1,000 yards: 2:26.7, Los Angeles

Indoor 880 yards: 2:02.4, February, San Diego

Indoor 800 meters (en route): 2:01.8, February, San Diego

1978

Indoor 1,000 yards: 2:23.8, February, Los Angeles

1980

Mile: 4:21.7, Jan. 26, Auckland, New Zealand

Indoor mile: 4:17.6, Feb. 16, Houston (a)

Indoor 1,500 meters: 4:00.8, Feb. 8, New York

Indoor 880 yards: 1:59.7, Feb. 22, San Diego (b)

1982

Indoor mile, 4:24.6, Jan. 22, Los Angeles

Indoor 3,000 meters, 8:47.3, Feb. 5, Inglewood, Calif.

Indoor 2,000 meters (en route): 5:53.4, Feb. 5, Inglewood, Calif.

Indoor mile: 4:21.47, Feb. 12, New York

Indoor mile: 4:20.5, Feb. 19, San Diego

5,000 meters: 15:08.26, June 5, Eugene

Mile: 4:18.08, July 9, Paris

10,000 meters: 31:35.3, July 16, Eugene

1983

Indoor 2 mile: 9:31.7, Jan. 22, Los Angeles

1984

2,000 meters: 5:32.70, Aug. 3, Eugene

1985

Indoor 2,000 meters: 5:34.52, Jan. 18, Los Angeles

Mile: 4:16.71, Aug. 21, Zurich, Switzerland

CURRENT U.S. RECORDS

1,500 meters: 3:57.12, July 26, 1983, Stockholm

Mile: 4:16.71, Aug. 21, 1985, Zurich, Switzerland

2,000 meters: 5:32.70, Aug. 3, 1984, Eugene

3,000 meters: 8:25.83, Sept. 7, 1985, Rome

Indoor 880 yards: 1:59.7, Feb. 22, 1980, San Diego

Indoor 1,500 meters: 4:00.8, Feb. 8, 1980, New York

Indoor Mile: 4:20.5, Feb. 19, 1982, San Diego

Indoor 2,000 meters: 5:34.52, Jan. 18, 1985, Los Angeles

a-Reported as world record, but not recognized because of odd-sized track.

b- Existing world record.

- Sources: USA Track & Field,

IAAF, Track & Field News

CAPTION(S):

Mary Slaney, who will be inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame on Saturday, has turned her attention to the marathon as her next challenge. Fans of Mary Slaney continue to send her mail and ask for autographs almost two decades after her most productive years on the track. In her 1985 outdoor season, Slaney set a world record and four American records. The Register-Guard, 1982 Mary Slaney waves at the Pre Classic in 1982, the same year she won the Sullivan Award as the country's top amateur athlete.
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Title Annotation:Mary Slaney sets new goals even as she is honored for 30 years of excellence; Sports
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 11, 2003
Words:2852
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