Slaney, Mary Decker (1958—)

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Slaney, Mary Decker (1958—)

American track-and-field middle-distance runner. Name variations: Mary Decker. Born Mary Teresa Decker on August 4, 1958, in Bunnvale, New Jersey; one of four children of John Decker (a New Jersey tool-and-die maker) and Jacqueline Decker; married Ron Tabb (a marathoner), in 1981 (divorced 1983); married Richard Slaney (a British discus thrower), in 1985; children: Ashley Lynn (b. 1986).

Although she has never won an Olympic medal and her career has been plagued with medical problems, Mary Decker Slaney is recognized as one of the great female runners. Born in 1958 in New Jersey, Slaney moved with her family to Huntington Beach, California, in 1969. There, at age 11, she entered a children's cross-country race. Her easy win and the pressure of competition convinced her to keep running. At first competing without a coach or formal instruction, Slaney continued winning races for her age group, including a statewide meet. Her natural ability was then developed under the guidance of the coach of a local girls' track club; within two years, she was breaking speed records. In 1971, she set a world record for her age group in the 800-meter race. Her desire to win led her to compete in seven races in one week, including a marathon; the effort put her in the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Nevertheless, Slaney continued to push herself, training two and a half hours a day in two workouts. In 1972, she qualified for the U.S. Olympic track team, but at age 13 she was too young to compete.

Recognized nationally by age 14, when she was able to compete in open races unrestricted by age group, Slaney began her career in international competition when she was chosen to join the American Amateur Athletic Union's track team in 1973. On a tour of the Soviet Union, Africa, and Western Europe, she repeatedly surprised spectators with victories over older runners. She won in the 800 meters in Minsk, beating an Olympic medalist, and by the end of 1974 held three world records for middle-distance races. She was, however, the subject of an international incident when a Soviet runner shoved her off the track during the 4×800 relay in the USSR. Enraged, Slaney threw a baton at her opponent—twice. Both teams were disqualified and Slaney admonished, but she did not suffer in popularity. "Little Mary Decker," as the press had dubbed her (she was less than 100 pounds and about 5' tall in 1974), was a favorite with spectators and reporters. Her six-inch growth spurt in 1975, coupled with an intensive training regimen, led to the first of the many debilitating injuries she would suffer in her career. Shin splints and stress fractures were treated with physical therapy, acupuncture, and anti-inflammatory drugs, to no avail; Slaney had to give up her dream of competing in the Olympic Games of 1976.

She graduated from high school in 1976 and moved to Boulder, Colorado, to enroll at the University of Colorado on a track scholarship, despite ongoing problems with stress fractures. In 1977, she successfully underwent surgery for a condition known as compartment syndrome, caused when her calf muscles grew too large for the surrounding sheaths, and was soon running without pain for the first time in two years. After competing in meets in Australia, she beat her own indoor world record for 1,000 yards at the U.S. Olympic Invitation in Los Angeles. She then left college in 1978 to train full-time under the guidance of Olympic medalist Dick Quax. However, afflicted with tendinitis, Slaney could compete in only a few events.

She then moved to Eugene, Oregon, and her career began to take off again. In January 1980, she set new world records in New Zealand and in the U.S. for the mile and 1,500-meter races respectively, then went on to break the world record for the 880-yard event and the U.S. record for the 800-meter event at the San Diego Invitational track meet in February. She qualified for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow but did not compete due to the U.S. boycott, competing in several international track meets that summer instead. Surgery to mend a torn Achilles tendon followed by a second shin-muscle operation kept her out of training and competition for an entire frustrating year. As had happened before and would happen again, Slaney's physical injuries were followed by an impressive comeback. In European meets in late 1981, she ran the 10,000 meters for the first time and beat the previous record by an astonishing 42 seconds. In September 1981, Mary married Ron Tabb, a champion marathoner; they would separate less than two years later.

The year 1982 was arguably her single best year, as she set five world records in indoor and outdoor races, including a 4:18 mile. She was named female athlete of the year by the Associated Press, as well as Jesse Owens International Amateur Athlete of the Year, the first woman to be so honored. Stress fractures of the ankle continued to plague Slaney in 1983, but they did not prevent her from winning against Olympic medalists at the World Track and Field championship in Helsinki. That year she also received the Amateur Sportswoman of the Year award from the Women's Sports Foundation and was named Sportswoman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. She became a spokeswoman for Nike shoes in the early 1980s, and accepted contracts with Eastman Kodak and Timex as well. By 1984, she held every American distance record from 800 to 10,000 meters.

Mary Decker Slaney was a sure bet for the gold medal going into the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Forced to choose between the 1,500- and 3,000-meter races because the events overlapped on the schedule, she chose the 3,000. But one of her fans was a South African runner from Bloemfontein named Zola Budd , who had trained by racing barefoot on the farm where she grew up. By 1983, Budd was number one in the world in the 5,000 meters (setting an unofficial record five seconds faster than Slaney's), but South Africa was banned from the Olympics because of its policy of apartheid. Finding a loophole and a paternal grandfather who had been a British citizen, Budd moved to England and began preparing for the Olympics as an English citizen (granted in two weeks' time). But the young girl, who only wanted to run, was now enveloped in a swirl of controversy and animosity. Animosity because she displaced British runners; controversy because she became a lightning rod for her country's racist policies. On her arrival in Los Angeles, Budd also learned that her South African citizenship had been revoked. Her solace: that she would be running against her idol, Slaney. On that fateful day which was to damage both their lives, each woman approached the starting line burdened with pressures.

Just past the mid-point of the 3,000-meter race, in one of the most famous collisions in the history of sports, Slaney became entangled with Budd, lost her balance, and pulled a hip muscle. Unable to rise, she was carried off the field. It had been her last chance for a gold medal. Sadly, Budd, who came in seventh, had to endure the continual booing of the spectators as she continued around the oval; Rumania's Maricica Puica won. As to who was at fault, theories abound. After the race, an inconsolable Slaney blamed Budd and refused to accept an apology; though Budd was initially disqualified, she was reinstated upon judicial review of the videotape. Shortly thereafter, she married, retired from competition and returned to Bloemfontein. In a 1994 interview for People Weekly, Slaney maintains that Budd moved to take the lead. "I let her, and then she cut across too soon. Even though I had people telling me she did it intentionally, I never thought she did. I don't hate her. I hated the fact that it was an opportunity for me that got messed up." Mary went from celebrity to outcast when the press caught her after the race berating the weeping Budd for tripping her. Although Slaney later said she regretted the outburst and did not believe Budd had deliberately tried to trip her, her popularity had suffered greatly.

Budd, Zola (1966—)

South African world-champion runner. Name variations: Zola Budd Pieterse. Born in 1966 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa; married Michael Pieterse (a businessman); children: daughter Lisa.

Following the disastrous 1984 Olympics, Zola Budd returned to South Africa to marry and raise a family. In 1992, when the IOC readmitted South Africa to the Olympics, Budd was on the country's first integrated team.

After recovering from her hip injury, Slaney made another comeback in 1985, setting a world record in the indoor 2,000 meters. A

month later, she set another world record for the mile, defeating both Budd and Puica. That year, Mary married British discus champion Richard Slaney. In 1986, she gave birth to a daughter, and was back in training a week later. Although she qualified for the 3,000-meter run in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, she did not medal. Because of the misadventure at the L.A. Olympics, Slaney had consistently set fast paces off the block so that she could avoid running with the pack, a habit that brought her in 10th. She failed to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Games.

As determined as ever, Decker, age 37, qualified in the 1996 Olympic trials for the 5,000-meter event, but was eliminated in the first round of competition. Scandal followed in 1997 when it was learned that the International Amateur Athletic Federation had suspended her for testing positive for excessive testosterone levels during the 1996 Olympic trials. Slaney maintained that she had never taken performance-enhancing drugs, and filed suit against the IAAF for a lost competition season and damage to her reputation. She was supported by the USA Track and Field federation. However, the IAAF refused to relent and although she was allowed to compete again, the records she earned after June 1996 were discounted; in 1999, she was stripped of the 1997 medal she earned in the 1,500-meter event at the World Indoor championships.

Mary Decker Slaney still holds five American records from the 800-meter to the 3,000-meter event. Living with her husband in Eugene, Oregon, she is now a master's runner, competing in road races and track meets across the United States.


"Going the Distance," in People Weekly. October 17, 1994.

Jacobs, Linda. Mary Decker: Speed Records and Spaghetti. St. Paul, MN: EMC Corp., 1975.

Markel, Robert. The Women's Sports Encyclopedia. NY: Henry Holt, 1997.

Moritz, Charles, ed. "Mary Decker," in Current Biography Yearbook 1983. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1984.

Newman, Matthew. Mary Decker Slaney. Mankato, MN: Crestwood House, 1986.

Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California