On Aug. 4, 1973,
Mary Teresa Decker was five feet tall and weighed 89 pounds, counting the
braces on her teeth. She was also the best female half-miler in the U.S. On
that afternoon she found herself sitting with her teammates at lunch in a hotel
dining room in Dakar, Senegal), on the westernmost tip of Africa. The meal was
spaghetti; the mood was uneasy, for in the evening the U.S. team would compete
against the best African track and field athletes.
conversation ceased, except for whispers. A stately file of tall black men had
entered the dining room. They wore shining white robes, densely embroidered. As
they proceeded between the tables, it was seen that some of them carried roses.
They stopped before Mary Decker and stood motionless and solemn. She shrank
into her chair.
motioned that she be given the roses. Then he identified himself as an aide to
Monsieur Abdou Diouf, the Premier of Senegal, and said that, because it had
come to His Excellency's attention that on this day Mary Decker became 15 years
old, he had sent a gift. Whereupon the aide bowed and placed before her a heavy
bronze sculpture of an African soldier on a horse. It was, the emissary
intoned, from the premier's private collection.
crimson and lost all capacity for speech. Her teammates rose and sang a ringing
Happy Birthday as the premier's men withdrew. Later she would win her race
easily and be comfortable in the stadium's applause, but now Decker sat in
embarrassed turmoil, staring at the bronze, fastening on its pitted surface,
the result of long burial. Quietly she began to cry.
Mary Decker is 19
now, and keeps the statue in her bedroom in Boulder, Colo., along with the
medals she won on that 1973 tour of Europe and Africa. She has never discovered
the sculpture's history or its age. She has never tried, because for her it is
a personal symbol of her exalted and vigorous youth, a youth which, given all
that has befallen her since her African adventure, seems dimly of another
daughter of John and Jacqueline Decker, was born and spent the first 10 years
of her life in Bunnvale, near Flemington, N.J. Her father was a private pilot
and a tool and die maker. "The atmosphere was dominated by my mother,"
says Decker. "My father is a very quiet person. My mother is a very unquiet
By the time Mary
was 12 her parents had come to the brink of a divorce. "They stayed
together for the sake of the kids," she says. "It was the biggest
mistake they ever made—besides getting married in the first place. They were
never close, as long as I can remember." Thus, although she recalls life
with her brother and two sisters as being friendly, there was reason enough for
her to seek acceptance outside her home. Friends have always been
extraordinarily important to Decker, and her need to please them is strong.
In 1968, when
Mary was 10, the Deckers moved for eight months to Santa Ana, Calif., then to
Huntington Beach, and two years later to Garden Grove. Decker began running at
11. "It was out of boredom," she says. "In the sixth grade my best
friend and I were sitting around one Saturday saying, 'What can we do?' We had
a flyer from the parks department and saw there was "cross-country' that
day. We didn't know what 'cross-country' was. We went down and found it was
running, so we ran. My friend dropped out. I won—by a long ways. I don't
remember its being very hard."
Decker went on to
win a county-wide race that year but was sick for the state age-group meet.
Nevertheless, she already had attracted the eye of Don DeNoon, a race walker
who had recently become women's coach for the Long Beach Comets club. After
training with DeNoon for two years, Decker set a 13-year-old age-group 880
record of 2:12.7 at the Mount San Antonio Relays. That same year she ran a 4:55
mile. Such times showed spectacular promise, but DeNoon's expectations were
without limit. He and Mary's mother formed a demanding alliance. Besides doing
hard speed work on the track every day. Decker was raced constantly. When she
was 12, she competed in the Palos Verdes Marathon one day and ran the 440 and
the 880 in an age-group meet the next. The following Saturday she ran a 440,
880, mile and two mile. The day after that she had her appendix out. "Have
you been under any unusual stress?" asked the doctor.
"There was no
pressure at first," Decker says now. "I enjoyed running and I always
did everything my coaches said"—for that was how approval was to be
won—"but when I began running well, everybody seemed to know what was best.
And everybody told me something different."