by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SEOUL, South Korea — She walked along the corridors of the Olympic Stadium, alone, unrecognized, her calf muscle still throbbing from the race.

“I think I go around here,” said Mary Decker Slaney, pointing to a concrete post. “No . . . wait. It’s the other side. Oh geez.”

No one stopped her. No one recognized her. Were this Los Angeles, 1984, she would be unsafe in these crowded halls, she would be mobbed, either by fans or by reporters.

But here people walked around her carrying flags and Cokes and they never looked twice. She is many time zones from LA, she is four years older, everything has changed — except that these are still the Olympics. And for Mary Decker Slaney, that has always meant trouble.

Has any woman had worse luck in the Games? She missed 1976 because of an injury. She missed 1980 because of the boycott. We all know what happened in 1984. And now here, Sunday, she failed miserably in the 3,000 meters. The gun sounded and she streaked to the front and stayed there for five laps — Too fast! She was going too fast! — and eventually the others caught her. On the turn the Romanian brushed her and Slaney stumbled and had to catch herself. She felt a twinge. Calf injury.

She finished 10th.

“Do you know where the treatment area is?” she asked. “I need to get this calf rubbed down.”

What had happened to the class of ’84? Edwin Moses? Carl Lewis? Mary Decker? Remember? They were almost a holy triumvirate back then, the most heralded athletes to ever enter an Olympic Games. But age weakens muscles and slows legs and bows to injury, and now, in a single weekend in Korea, the big three had all lost — all to younger competitors. Lewis was blown away by Canadian Ben Johnson in the 100 meters; Moses was stunned by teammate Andre Phillips — who had never beaten him — in the 400-meter hurdles.

And Decker Slaney had gotten tangled up again, she had finished 10th, behind the Russians and the Romanians and the Canadians, and she was looking at going home empty from an Olympiad.

Once more.

Do the Olympics still hold the same mystique for you?” I asked as we searched for the treatment area. It seemd incredible to me that for all she had done, this was the first Olympic race she had even finished.

“Well, they still mean a lot,” she said. “But I’ve been trying for so long to be succssful in them that, well . . . sometimes it’s just not there for me.

“I don’t know. . . . I wish I’d come in more ready.”

Once she had run with pig-tails and braces, they called her “Little Mary Decker,” she set a world record at age 14 and everyone knew she would win a gold medal someday. But someday never came. She is still thin and curly haired with the pout of a teenager, but she is 30 now, with a husband and a child. And her attitude, like most of ours, has softened with age. Losses used to rattle her like a spoiled child, she would gripe and whine and cry.

Now, here she was, her Olympic race not yet cool from the oven, and she was looking for a rubdown and thinking about entering the 1,500 meters. Maybe she would. Maybe not. Depends on how she felt.

“I had to be realistic. I’ve been sick for the last six weeks. I didn’t really have all that much racing in. I figured I’d run from the front and give it everything I had.

“I went too fast — maybe four seconds too fast on the first lap. I don’t run well in traffic, as you probably know. And I guess I didn’t want to get caught in the pack . . . “

She paused.

“You didn’t want to trip again?” I said.

She nodded and allowed a smile.

“I didn’t want to trip again.”

Remember? Who could forget? It was 1984, a cool August evening. It was the Olympics and Mary Decker was leading the 3,000 meters. She was our best female distance runner ever, she looked good, the TV announcers were calling her name — and then, disaster. She got tangled with a barefoot teenager, Zola Budd, she tripped and fell hard on her hip, the other runners disappeared and Decker rolled over on the infield, buried her head in the grass, and wept. Her soon-to-be husband, Richard Slaney, had to carry her off.

America cried with her that night, because she was our best and she deserved a finer ending. But then America went on to other things and time passed and Mary Decker Slaney was left alone with her dreams. Her body has been battered more than any female runner you can think of, torn back muscle, achilles surgery, shin surgery, countless stress fractures, a fractured skull in a car accident. She comes back. Over and over.

“Do you ever think that maybe this is your fate,” I asked, “to be a great runner who never wins an Olympic medal?”

“Oh no,” she said quickly. “I can’t do that.”

We walked a few more steps. A Korean man passed with a camera and he tried to read her ID badge.

“You always hold out hope then?”

“I have to,” she said.

This is not 1984. Gold medals do not fall from the sky for America. The competition at these Summer Olympics — the first full-scale version since 1972 — is fiercer than ever. And the gold-medal class of ’84, not only Moses and Lewis but Evelyn Ashford (second this time in the 100 meters) and swimmer Mary T. Meagher (third in the 200 butterfly) are finding that nothing lasts forever.

But there is a difference. They all had their Olympic moment. They all stood on the victory stand, heard the national anthem, fingered the little gold amulet that meant for one moment, when the whole world was watching, they were the best.

And Mary Decker Slaney is still waiting. The Games for her are like the car

that keeps breaking down on the way to the prom. Four Olympics. Not one Olympic moment — at least not one she wants to remember. It doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t fair.

“I can’t get that upset. In 1984, it was different. Even though it was an accident, it was somebody else’s mistake that cost me my race.

” But this time it was my mistake. I just went out too fast . . . “

She sighed. Athletes in lime green sweat suits were jogging past her, leaving the stadium. Athletes in purple sweatsuits were walking in, reporting for their competition. She passed the souvenir stand and the VIP gate and she stepped gingerly onto the curb and towards the treatment area.

“There’s always Barcelona,” she said, shrugging and looking straight ahead.
“They say women distance runners don’t peak until their mid-30s.”

I nodded and hoped she was right. CUTLINE: Mary Decker Slaney catches her breath after finishing 10th in the women’s 3,000-meter race.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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