Mary Decker Slaney has begun what may be her final attempt at winning an Olympic gold medal.

Decker, who turns 30 in August, has owned nearly every American record for women at the middle distances since bursting onto the scene 16 years ago.The Olympics, however, have been another story.

In 1972, Decker was too young. In the next three Olympiads she was done in by a shin injury (1976), an American boycott (1980), and a collision with Zola Budd (1984).

Many felt Decker's career was all but over in 1986 when she gave birth to a daughter and again underwent surgery on her oft-injured leg. Those doubts were reinforced last year when a comeback attempt was thwarted by yet more surgery on her leg.

But Decker, who prefers to be known by her maiden name, has proven her critics wrong before, and is out to again to establish herself as America's best female middle distance runner.

Nearly three years after her last 3,000 meters race, Decker ran an 8:49.43 Saturday at the Jenner meet in San Jose. The time was the best this season for an American woman.

"Quite frankly, I didn't know how Mary would run today," said Mary Knisely, who finished a distant second. "She hasn't raced in so long. But she looked easy out there. She went fast early, as Mary always does, and she ran well."

"The first three laps went the way I had planned them," Decker said, "but then I slowed down in the middle portion of the race. I just haven't raced in a long time. It takes a while to get back into the racing mentality."

Decker was jittery before the race.

"I haven't been in a race situation in a while," she said. "I had a case of pre-race nerves. I was shooting for between an 8:35 and 8:45, but I ran a bit slower.

"I'm encouraged right now. I think I'm where I should be at this point. Right now I just want to stay healthy until the trials. My goal is to peak at the Olympics.

"I've made the decision to concentrate on the 3,000 at the trials and at the Olympics," she said. "If I feel healthy, then I'll run the 1,500 meters at the trials. I think it would be foolish not to think about doubling because of the (light) schedule this year."