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YESTERDAY'S CHILD
Kenny Moore
May 01, 1978
Mary Decker remembers how wonderful life was when she was 14 and a world-class runner. Now, after years filled with turmoil and pain, she has come back to the sport she loves and become a record-setter all over again
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May 01, 1978

Yesterday's Child

Mary Decker remembers how wonderful life was when she was 14 and a world-class runner. Now, after years filled with turmoil and pain, she has come back to the sport she loves and become a record-setter all over again

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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.

Suddenly 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.

The leader 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.

Decker turned 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 age.

Mary, the 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 one."

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."

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