Mary Decker-Slaney was an American icon. A precocious talent, her body paid for it, as she required nine plus surgeries during her career. Her finest days were during the IAAF World Championships in 1983, when she took on the Soviet bloc and won the 1,500m and 3,000m. Here is a piece by Jeff Benjamin, who spoke to Mary Decker-Slaney, to celebrate her 35th anniversary of her double win!
Mary Decker-Slaney, 1985, Sports Illustrated
These days living in the woods of Oregon, Mary Decker-Slaney has had the recent challenge of doubling up on the family work and obligations. Her husband, former British record holder Richard Slaney, has been sidelined by foot surgery in recent months and Mary has been working quite hard to keep the balance going. “It isn’t easy,” she said.
35 Years ago, in front of thousands of spectators, millions of television viewers and against the best middle-distance runners in the world, Decker-Slaney achieved an even more spectacular double.
Leading and towing the fields almost literally from start to finish, one of America’s greatest all-time female middle distance runners won both the 3000 and the 1500 meters in the Inaugural World Outdoor Track & Field Championships, which were held in Helsinki, Finland, an achievement considered to this day to be one of the most memorable in the Sport.
A child prodigy at 14 who had competed internationally going back more than a decade, Decker-Slaney endured years of triumphs as well as injuries, throughout her career. Yet, when 1983 came around, Decker-Slaney, with the help of Coach Dick Brown, wanted to be ready for her competition, especially the Soviet-Bloc runners.
“You know, in the 70’s and 80’s those Eastern Bloc runners we’re really it,” said Decker-Slaney, who was 25 at the time. “The Westerners weren’t even considered!”
“Nobody thought the Westerners would win, and that really motivated me,” said Decker-Slaney, who formulated with Brown quite an aggressive plan.
“I decided that it was gonna be a race in both events, not slow and tactical, and whether I’d win or lose, I was going to do what I was going to do!”
She sure did. In the 3000 race, Decker-Slaney literally led from start to finish, and when Soviet Runner and multiple Olympic Champion Tatyana Kazankina made her move on Decker-Slaney with less than 200 to go and then with 50 meters left, all Decker-Slaney seemed to do was relax and shift into a final gear, defeating Kazankina (who was overtaken by Brigitte Kraus of West Germany) and the rest of the field with ease. “I just didn’t want a tactical race,” said Decker-Slaney, who won with a time of 8:34.62.
However, the 1500 would be even more dramatic.
Once again, Decker-Slaney did not want the slow and tactical affair, once again taking the lead. “It really motivated me when people said, “Mary doesn’t have the speed against the Russians,” said Decker-Slaney, who stormed out to the front, leading the field through splits of 64 (400), 2:10 (800), and 3:16 (1200).
But with 200 to go, Soviet Zamira Zaytseva surged to the lead, hugging the inside rail and looking like she may win. Then Decker-Slaney fought back. “I remember saying to myself, “This isn’t over yet,” as she still gave chase.
50 meters from the finish, Decker-Slaney looked over her left shoulder, saw no one there, and then launched a furious sprint, overtaking the struggling Zaytseva right at the finish line. The exhausted Zaytseva fell (or leapt!) face first across the line, crashing down as Decker-Slaney won in a time of 4:00.90.
“When she fell on my left, I wasn’t sure if I had beaten her,” said Decker-Slaney, who ran her last lap in 60 seconds!
1983 was truly a pinnacle year for Decker-Slaney. 1972 Olympian and Sports Illustrated Writer extraordinaire Kenny Moore no doubt successfully lobbied the magazine to select her as the Sportswoman of the Year, a revolutionary pick at the time for women as well as the sport of Track & Field. In his grand article – https://www.si.com/vault/1983/12/26/619702/she-runs-and-we-are-lifted
– Moore noted that Decker-Slaney was being recognized for, among other things –
“…for being undefeated this year (1983) in 20 finals, on tracks indoors (three) and outdoors (16) and on the undisciplined surface of a road, an unrivaled and masterly accomplishment.”
“You know, I hadn’t really thought about the World Championships in a long time,” reflected Decker-Slaney, who still holds on to some American Records.
“I just can’t believe the time!”
And neither can we!
Bell Lap –
I am beyond grateful for Mary Decker-Slaney for taking the time to talk. But, as evidenced by her multi-tasking these days and how she’s handled it, it was not surprising.
I’m also grateful to my pal Tracy Sundlun for all his help as well. If there ever was a checkbook for the times Tracy has helped this writer, I’d be in the poor house probably with my beloved boss Larry Eder as well!
Finally- Here are the links to Mary’s championship victories- please watch, be amazed and be inspired!