Mary Decker Takes a Run at Happiness with Husband Richard Slaney
09/29/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
The image is seared in our collective memory. Having just collided with barefoot Zola Budd, Mary Decker lies crumpled on the infield of the Los Angeles Coliseum, screaming in anguish and pain as another chance at Olympic gold passes her by. Moments later a giant named Richard Slaney picks up the fallen runner like a broken rag doll and carries her off the track. Mary Decker's comeback has begun.
Two years later Decker has a new name, a new daughter and a new attitude. She got the name on Jan. 1, 1985, when she became Mrs. Richard Slaney. Last May 30 she gave birth to Ashley Lynn Slaney. And last week she entered her first race in a year, Manhattan's Mercedes Mile. She finished a distant sixth, but that didn't worry Mary, who had been bothered by Achilles tendinitis for the eight weeks before the race. "I had to choose between not going," she says, "and just going and running for fun. So I went and had a good time."
Tanned, slim and relaxed, Mary, Mary, once contrary, exudes a newfound equanimity. "There's less emphasis on track," says the Slaneys' friend Judi Brown-King. "Mary's more well-rounded now." Slaney, as she now prefers to be called, might never have gotten to this point had it not been for Richard's quiet strength in the dark days following the Olympics. "Emotionally and psychologically, Richard was very supportive," says Mary. Today she is even able to see the up side of her terrible fall. "People are going to remember that race," says Mary, "and I think it's going to generate a lot more interest in the next Olympics and the women's events." Such positive thinking did not come easily. Mary admits that it wasn't until she resumed racing last summer that she was able to put the '84 Olympics behind her. The fact that she beat Budd as well as Maricica Puica (who went on to win that memorable 3,000 meters) all four times she faced them last year didn't hurt.
Life for Mary, 28, and Richard, 30, revolves around the newest member of the Slaney household. "Ashley, you're really gross, do you know that?" says the 6'7" British-born discus thrower as his daughter chews on one of his banana-size fingers. The Slaneys' two-story home in Eugene, Ore. has handmade quilts on the wall, a pastel color scheme and unfailing neatness throughout. Seemingly out of place is the giant oil painting of Mary over the fireplace. The painting, a semi-abstract of her running in the World Championships in Helsinki in 1983, is there because Richard wants it there. "I just don't like having a painting of myself up there," says Mary, "but since I get my way with most everything else in the house, Richard has to get his way with something." One area where Mary got her way was the naming of their baby. "We made a list of names," says Richard. "I picked the one I liked best, then Mary named her Ashley."
Delighted as she is about Ashley, Mary wasn't about to let motherhood interfere with her running regimen. She waited until after her last race of the 1985 season, then she and Richard flew to Hawaii for a 10-day vacation. Within three days, says Mary, she knew she was pregnant. She continued to run normally through her fourth month, but after that she got cramps in her lower abdomen. She was still trying to run the week before she gave birth, though she could get in no more than 400 yards at a time before the cramps hit. Mary has unhappy memories of the nine hours she spent in the delivery room. "I'm telling you," she says, "once you're in labor, you've got four or five people telling you different ways to breathe, and you get to the point where you say, 'Screw this breathing stuff!' " She had to have two paracervical blocks and an epidural to relieve the pain.
Pain, both physical and psychological, has been a constant in Mary's life. She ran (and won) her first race at age 11, the year before her father left the family. At 16, she left home herself to pursue her running dreams. An athletic scholarship took her to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where her career was almost finished by compartment syndrome, a condition caused by calf muscles that grow too big for their surrounding sheaths. A series of operations relieved the pressure, and Mary began to tear up the record books. (She holds the U.S. record in every running event from the 800 to the 10,000 meters as well as numerous world records.)
There was also an ugly divorce from marathoner Ron Tabb in 1983, after a 21-month marriage. Mary will not even mention Tabb's name these days. She refers to him as "the other one," as when she describes how her romance with Slaney began. The two met in March 1983 at a sports dinner in New York—and didn't exactly hit it off. Each thought the other was stuck up. "We were supposed to take pictures at this dinner," reports Richard, "and the photographer kept asking us to get closer together, but she kept moving further away." A month later, Mary heard that Slaney and British decathlete Daley Thompson would be in Eugene to train for the 1983 World Games, and she invited them to stay at her house. "I had been separated from the other one for a while, and I was really lonely," explains Mary. "Richard and I became really good friends before we started seeing each other romantically or anything like that." Slaney, who says, "I never, ever, wanted to get married before," was attracted by Decker's honesty, consideration—and vulnerability. "She was having a lot of problems," he says, "and I felt bad for her."
"So you married me out of pity, right?" Mary teases. Slaney has a different explanation. "She's the nicest person I've ever known," he says. "That's why I married her."
The son of an engineer and a bookkeeper, Slaney was born in Crawley, 30 miles south of London. He received a degree in aeronautical engineering from Sussex University in 1977. "I used to be clever in those days," he says. From there he went to San Diego State on a sports scholarship, where he briefly tackled American football. "I got beat to hell," he says matter-of-factly. He returned to England and his first love, the discus. Once ranked eighth in the world, he finished 12th at the '84 Olympics.
Before Slaney and Decker could get married, they had to exorcise some nasty ghosts from Mary's past—one troublesome ghost in particular. After her separation from Tabb, Mary tried to keep things cordial, "but he got really nasty," she says. "He started writing nasty letters that were supposedly anonymous, but I knew they weren't anonymous." Tabb denies this charge. One thing Tabb does admit to is putting this message on his telephone answering machine after the Olympics: "Here is today's Trivial Pursuit question: What American athlete fell flat on her face during the women's 3000-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."
Eugene may be a city of 105,000, but it's small enough that word got back to Mary and Richard. And small enough that it was inevitable that Ron Tabb, 115-pound marathoner, would run into Richard Slaney, 290-pound discus thrower. Nobody was hurt when they did meet, largely because Tabb appears to have called on his running skills before Slaney could get around to using him as a discus. "Come to think of it," Slaney says, smiling, "he hasn't bothered us since."
Slaney's most recent fling (of the discus) came at August's Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was "disappointed and frustrated" by his sixth-place finish. Slaney is quick to admit that his wife is "more into sport than I am" and he seems happy to run the two tanning salons in Oregon that he and Mary own.
For her part, Mary was back running a week after Ashley was born. "Now I'm really hungry to get back into high-level competition," says Decker. That hunger is fueled by her quest for the ever-elusive Olympic gold. She was too young to run in 1972, she was injured in 1976, the boycott kept her out of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and 1984 is something she would rather forget. But there's always 1988—and beyond. "I have hopes of going to the '92 Olympics too," she says, and you can see in her eyes the imagined scene in which her hulking husband hoists her in his arms again—this time in triumph.