No matter what happens to her in the 1988 Summer Olympics - and Mary Decker Slaney is ready for absolutely anything - the United States' greatest women's distance runner says she won't retire and wants to keep right on running through the 1992 Olympics.
Buoyed by an impressive early-season return to the 3,000 meters at Saturday's Bruce Jenner Bud Light Classic in San Jose Calif., Slaney said the one major goal left for her in a 17-year career full of world championships and U.S. records is an Olympic gold medal, and she is doing everything possible to see that nothing - and no one - gets in her way."For me, the Olympics are one thing I've never been able to be at, or be healthy for, or perform well at," Slaney said in an interview before leaving home for this weekend's L'Eggs 10-kilometer race in New York. "I'm trying to keep things under control and I'm trying to avoid the injury problems I've had in the past. I think I can do it. There's a lot at stake for me. If I screw up, I will have blown another Olympics."
In four years, Slaney has grown surprisingly blunt about what happened on a mild Friday night in August 1984, just past the fourth turn of the track at the Los Angeles Coliseum, early in a race she was favored to win.
Slaney, still Decker and single at the time, was running in a pack and got her legs tangled with the bare feet of Zola Budd, a South African running for Great Britain. Slaney fell, inadvertently tearing Budd's runner's number off her back as she tumbled to the track. Injured, she couldn't get up, and the other runners went on without her.
"I have chosen to run the 3,000 again this year because of what happened in 1984," she said. "I left something unfinished and I'd like to go back and finish it and do so successfully."
But before she reaches Seoul in September, or Indianapolis, site of the U.S. Olympic Trials, in July, she must avoid injuries, her biggest enemy. Last year, her season "never got started" because of an Achilles' tendon injury and subsequent surgery. Other injuries dot her resume.
"In a lot of respects, a successful Olympics will get the monkey off my back," she said. "But bigger than the 1984 monkey is just staying healthy. On the one hand, I have to be so careful not to get injured again. On the other hand, I have to train hard enough so that my performances are adequate for me. There's a very fine line there, a very fine line.
Perhaps it is her awareness of the constant threat of injury that allows her to look beyond the rest of 1988 and see competition stretching into the '90s.
"I'd like to run in 1992 in the Olympics and, of course, between now and then. I'm thinking of the 5,000 or 10,000 in 1992. They've got the 10,000 now and they might put in the 5,000."
Slaney will turn 30 in August. "competitively, I'm far from reaching my peak," she said. "It's a proven fact that the Europeans peak and do very well from age 30 through age 36 or 38. I think I've got some good years left."
When Slaney thinks back to 1984, "it seems like another lifetime," she said. She married British discus thrower Richard Slaney Jan. 1, 1985. They have a daughter, Ashley, who just celebrated her second birthday. Mary Slaney says Ashley is the one person who has been able to make her separate track and real life. She has time for an interview only when Richard gives Ashley a bath.
"It's good for me," she said after her race at the Jenner meet, where she ran 8:49.43 to win without a challenge. "Being a mother has given me a perspective that there's more to life than track....I love being a mother. I spend my spare time playing ring-around-the-rosey and running back and forth and playing hide-and-seek. It is good. In the past, I spent too much time wound up about track."
And yet, there is no mistaking the competitive fire that still burns within Mary Slaney. She knows that no matter what she accomplishes in her career, she will be remembered for her worst moment. The Fall. The only way to exorcise the image is with a success of comparable weight.
"For me to get where I want this year, I can't let what happened in 1984 happen again. I guess it's the same thing if you are in a car accident. You think you will not let that happen again."
What did Slaney learn from the mishap with Budd?
"I do need to be a little more aware. Very few times in my career have I run in groups like I did in that race. I guess I had let my guard down because the Russians were not there (due to the Eastern Bloc boycott). I'm always much more aware of them when they are in a race, that something might happen like that. I'm used to their tactics.
"This year, at the Olympics, I'm not going to let it be a tactical race. If I'm at the Olympics, I'll be fit, I'll be ready to run my race. I like to run in front. I don't like to let it be tactical."
If the race is run as she likes it, if she avoids the pack that caused the fall in L.A., Slaney can accept victory or defeat.
Slaney, who also plans to run the 1,500 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials but will focus on the 3,000, hadn't run a 3,000-meter race since 1985 before Saturday. In '85, she set the U.S. record of 8:25.83, one of eight U.S. marks she holds. From 800 meters to 10,000 meters, counting everything in betwen, Slaney has the fastest times ever run by an American woman.
In Seoul, Slaney believes she will need to run between 8:20 and 8:25 to win the gold medal.
"I know I'm capable of that," she said. "If I'm healthy, it's not unrealistic to run somewhere near 8:20. I know what it feels like, and I've got a longer period to train leading up to Seoul than I did leading up to the race I ran in 1985, because of injuries before that season.
"At my peaking point, I can be stronger this year than I was in 1985," she said. "It's just a matter of getting there."
In Seoul, there will be no Slaney-Budd rematch. Three weeks ago, Budd dropped out of competitive running and returned home to South Afric, distraught and exhausted by the political controversy that followed her wherever she ran.
So Budd is out of the picture. The Olympics, however, are not.