Mary Decker is either the enfant terrible or the coming star of women's track—or both. The tiny 15-year-old set indoor world records at 800 meters and 880 and 1,000 yards last winter and won the 800 meters handily at the U.S.S.R. indoor meet in Moscow. But later on in the Russian meet, running the anchor leg of a relay race, she was passed by a Soviet opponent who cut in too sharply and elbowed her. Upset, Mary angrily threw her baton at the Soviet girl and later broke into hysterical tears.
Now, apparently serene again, Mary seems ready to break two minutes in the half mile, which would be as impressive in its way as Jim Ryun's first sub-four-minute mile back in 1964, when he was a 17-year-old high school student. Only nine women have gone under two minutes for 800 meters, all of them tough, seasoned Europeans, ranging in age from 22 to 31.
Mary's best time for 800 meters outdoors is 2:02.4, but her indoor record of 2:02.4 for 880 yards is the equivalent of 2:01.5 for the slightly shorter metric distance. She is getting close, but some observers say she is getting there too fast. Steve Prefontaine, with whom Mary has been corresponding about her training and her goals, says, "Her future could go up in smoke if she's pushed too hard. I couldn't believe her training schedule. She could become so sick of running that she'll want to retire at 18."
Much of the criticism has been directed at Don DeNoon, a former race walker who was Mary's coach on the Blue Angels Track Club in Huntington Beach, Calif. When Prefontaine heard that Mary had run a quarter-mile leg in a relay only 25 minutes after setting her world record in the half mile, he said, "It was the job of her coach to tell her, 'You have done enough,' even if she wanted to run." Hammer Thrower George Frenn stopped Mary one day last winter in the course of a workout for the Moscow meet. "You're going to burn yourself out," he advised her. "You can only take so much out of the cash register without going bankrupt."
April 21, 1974
Alarmed, Mary's mother, Mrs. Jackie Decker, told DeNoon that she was going to have the last word in all decisions concerning Mary from then on. She also resolved to find a new coach for her daughter, and said that she expected to accompany Mary on her trips.
"I asked Mary," says Jackie Decker, "whether she would rather have me along than Don, and she said, 'Of course.' Don has been tagging along with Mary, seeing the world with her, when I could be doing it."
DeNoon denies having pushed Mary too hard. "If we really worked at it," he says, "she could be the best quarter-miler, half-miler and miler in the country. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal she could win both the 800 meters and the 1,500 meters." As for Mary, right now she likes to run; she does not take a day off even after a demanding race. Still, last month she complained, "My workouts aren't fun anymore." It was not the work that bothered her, she said, but that the Blue Angels had switched training sites, and most of her friends, including boyfriend Bill Graves, were unable to make the sessions. While everyone was busy discussing what Mary should or should not do with her career, she calmly found herself a new coach, 21-year-old Ted Devian, whose distance runners at Pacifica High School include Graves, a miler. She also waived the offer of a "rabbit" to pace her for the first quarter of the half mile she will run at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays next week and declared that she would not try to break two minutes. "If it happens, it happens," she said.
At 5'3" and 98 pounds Mary seems fragile, but her long, lean muscles are ideal for the distances she runs. Off the track she is a bewildering mixture of styles and attitudes, like so many of today's youngsters. She plucks her eyebrows and replaces them with thin pencil lines, but she also wears braces on her teeth. She painted her nails maroon until recently, when she started biting them. She loves strawberries, but before a race she dutifully eats spaghetti—without sauce or salt—to stock up on carbohydrates.
"I am a typical 15-year-old," she says. "I swim and sew and bike and do all sorts of things, just like any other normal kid."
When Mary was born, the Deckers lived in Bunnvale, N.J., but in 1968 they moved to California. Mary, then 10, started running in the parks around Huntington Beach because "there was nothing else to do."
DeNoon discovered her that same year when she won the first race she entered. Mary went from being a sprinter to a quarter-miler to a miler, before settling in last June as a half-miler. In July and August she took her first trip abroad and scored a stunning victory in Minsk over Russia's Niene Sabaite. She celebrated her 15th birthday two days later in Dakar, where she was presented with a bronze statue of a warrior on a horse by the president of Senegal.
In all, 1973 was a tumultuous year for her. In January her grandmother died, and Mary went to the funeral on the morning of an indoor meet in Los Angeles. She competed in the meet because her grandfather kept saying, "Grandmother wants you to run." Mary cried all the way through her race and finished last. In the summer she found a training partner in Graves, a tall, blond 18-year-old with a personal best in the mile of 4:17.2. "I admire him for his intelligence," says Mary, "but he can't teach me anything about running." On weekends when they are both competing, Mary seems more concerned about Bill's performance than her own. Last February, when she was in New York for the indoor AAU championships, she telephoned him in California to inquire why he had not answered any of the four letters she had written him during the previous two days.
Bill has been a stabilizing factor in her life, especially since her parents, whose interests differ, have decided on a divorce. John Decker, 38, is an engineer who likes to ride motorcycles. He built his own Gyrocopter (a one-seat helicopter) and flew it in the desert until he crashed last year. He escaped with a broken rib. "That's the kind of thing that I do not enjoy watching," says Jackie Decker, who is 35. Twice she and the couple's three daughters, Mary, Christine, 13, and Denise, 9, participated in a desert outing. "The first time it snowed," says John, "and the second time we had a sandstorm. My wife said she had enough." Mary's brother Johnny, 17, was the only member of the family who shared his father's adventures with enthusiasm. Three years ago the senior Decker had an accident while riding his motorcycle with Mary on the back seat. They were hit from behind and she suffered a concussion. "Since then Mary doesn't like motorcycles or planes," says Jackie Decker. Despite the crackup in California and her blowup in Moscow, Mary seems able to cope with the challenges that come her way.
"She's just another person on my team," says Devian. "The only thing about her that's new for me is that she doesn't complain. I'm not used to that."
It may be that Mary Decker is the only one who knows herself, knows what she wants to do and can do. "I don't believe people burn out physically," she says. "They burn out mentally. Right now, track is 99% of my life. I've set myself goals in it. I want to break two minutes in the half mile, and I want to win a gold medal in the 800 meters at the Olympics.
"If I don't get it in Montreal, I might stick around for another four years—if I still want it badly enough."