Slaney earns another chance She gets Games spot at age 37, finishing 2nd in 5,000 trials

June 18, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- In another life, little Mary Decker was the precocious prodigy from Southern California who ran her first sub-5-minute mile at the age of 13, made the U.S. national team at 14, twice threw a baton at a brawny Russian woman after being elbowed during a relay she helped win in Minsk and seemed destined for a future filled with Olympic gold.

It never happened.

She was too young to compete in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. She missed the 1976 Games in Montreal with a shin injury. She stayed home with the rest of her teammates when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. She got tangled up with Zola Budd, a South African running for Great Britian, in Los Angeles in 1984. She won both the 1,500 and 3,000 meters at the Olympic trials in 1988, but finished eighth in one Olympics race and 10th in the other. She failed to qualify in 1992, finishing fourth in the 1,500 and sixth in the 3,000.

Now 37 and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, Mary Slaney will get another chance. She continued her remarkable comeback last night in the U.S. track and field trials at Olympic Stadium by finishing second to Lynn Jennings in the final of the 5,000 meters.

Free of the injuries that have marred her career, free of the pressure that has followed her into adulthood, Slaney is looking forward to coming back here next month, with the only expectations being her own.

"These Olympics will be much different," said Slaney.

They will, but they nearly never happened for Slaney because of a frighteningly similar incident to when she fell to the track at the Los Angeles Coliseum in '84 after being accidentally tripped up by Budd.

After taking the lead for four laps midway through the race last night, Slaney fell a good two seconds behind the first three runners with 800 meters to go. As she made her way back into contention on the last lap, the back of one of Slaney's shoes got caught up with Amy Rudolph, who finished third and also made the Olympic team.

She looked back twice, but never wavered as she tried in vain to catch eventual winner Jennings, who finished .21 of a second ahead of Slaney in a time of 15: 28.18.

After the race, the scoreboard showed a replay from the incident with Budd. Asked if she thought about it, Slaney smiled. "A little bit," she said.

Slaney, who took part of the blame for last night's incident because of her high back kick, added, "I try not to flash back that far."

In fact, Slaney didn't know whose shoe she caught until she was sitting on a podium in a post-race news conference. "It was me," Rudolph, 22, said shyly. "It's still going through my head."

Making her third Olympic team was the farthest thing from Slaney's mind a year ago. Still recovering from surgery on her Achilles' tendon in September 1994 -- she couldn't remember if it was the 18th or 20th surgery of her career -- Slaney went to last year's world championships in Sweden as a spectator. She also went to consult a doctor there about a new pair of orthotics.

"For me it's not that I had more problems because I'm older," she said. "I've always had problems. It's not that different. But I knew I had to be healthy by January."

She was, and she qualified in an event that was being added to the Olympic schedule for the first time. Last night's race was only her sixth 5,000 meters, but she drew on her experience from the past to get through.

Slaney said that being a dominant runner in the late 1970s and early 1980s might have led to her not handling the situation with Budd as well as she handled what happened with Rudolph. "I wasn't used to contact," she said. "I led everything. I was always in front."

With the small but vocal crowd cheering her on, Slaney stayed on her feet and finished what she started months ago. She is certainly not the runner who still holds a slew of American records, but her experience helped her last night. And it could help her when she comes back here next month. She will turn 38 on the night of the closing ceremonies.

"To me, it just means I have a birthday coming up," she said. "The perception for me is that people think I'm older than I am because I've been in this sport for a very long time. I've said all along that you're only as old as you feel. It's not that the rest of the people in the race had anything over me because of my age."

"I think you all need a bit of a mind adjustment about age in running," said Jennings, 35, who also made her third Olympic team. "Mary's an excellent example. She showed a lot of heart. I'm thrilled for her."

Considering the winding road her career has taken, Slaney merely felt relieved, but she knew she could count it among her greatest achievements. "It's up there, simply because it was TC long shot to even be here," she said. "Now that it's here, there's a weight off my shoulder."

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