Mary Slaney first ran in New York City's Millrose Games in 1974, when she was "little Mary" Decker, a pigtailed 15-year-old so absurdly talented that she was already the best female half-miler in the country. Though her grandfather escorted her to the premeet banquet that year, Slaney showed no respect for her elders on the track, winning the 1,000-yard run in 2:27.4. By the early '80s she had become the best female runner in the world, setting world outdoor records in the mile, the 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters, plus 16 world indoor bests. Several of her greatest performances came at the Millrose Games, including a stunning world 1,500-meter record of 4:00.8 in '80. That clocking earned her the first of four appearances on a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover (above), the third of which celebrated her selection as our '83 Sportswoman of the Year.
Throughout her career Slaney has been forced to accept that her fiercest opponent is often her own ambition. Under its merciless lash her body has frequently broken down. She has undergone 19 operations, most recently in '94 to remove 25% of her left Achilles tendon.
Last summer Slaney made her fourth U.S. Olympic team, in the 5,000. Even before she failed to reach the final in Atlanta, she knew something was drastically wrong with her. She was getting dizzy and winded just walking up stairs and had pains in her chest. "The first thing I thought of was my heart," she says. "My family has had a history of heart problems." Tests following the Olympics revealed she had exercise-induced asthma. Three medications were prescribed, and she began feeling like the Slaney of old—or, rather, of young.
Even though she had not stepped on an indoor track in eight years, Slaney called Millrose meet director Howard Schmertz in December and asked to enter the mile. "I want to win and run fast, between 4:20 and 4:25," she said before the meet. "I suppose I'm being a bit greedy, but it's Millrose." Knowing her history, one feared for Slaney, but last Friday night she ran a controlled race, pulling away over the final 440 to win in 4:26.67. It was the best indoor mile by a woman in two years.
Slaney was thrilled by her performance and even spoke of competing in the Sydney Olympics, when she will be 42. "People I run against no longer tell me they had my poster on their wall," she said. "Now they thank me for showing they have 10 more years of running."