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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."
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."