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For six days Mary Decker had hidden away at a small hotel in central Stockholm, where, she said, "No one could possibly find me." For weeks, as she'd tried to train at home in Eugene, Ore., no one had left her alone. She had sat through interview after business deal after photo session. Decker had wanted to prepare for next week's World Championships in Helsinki, where she'll run 1,500 and 3,000 meters. Others had wanted her to prepare a Mary Decker aerobic disco dance album. "It was all getting to be too much for me," said Decker early last week. "I needed to get away."
And so she had come to warm, peaceful Stockholm, where most of the 97 members of the U.S. World Championship team were gathering for a low-key dual meet against a squad from the Nordic countries. But Decker stayed away from even her teammates. She took long, easy runs, slept off jet lag and focused intently on the 1,500 meters she would race on July 26. What Decker wanted was nothing less than an American record.
At the gun she was away, only Canada's Brit McRoberts within 10 yards of her as she ran an opening lap of 62.61-3.6 off the U.S.-record pace Decker had set in Zurich in 1980. McRoberts then began to struggle, as if caught in soft beach sand. The race, in effect, was already over. Decker drew 30, 40, 50 yards ahead and began chasing the record alone.
The Stockholm meet came amid a year of peaks and valleys for Decker. On the down side, she separated from husband Ron Tabb in March, and subsequently developed a pre-ulcer condition. More happily, she won national titles at 1,500 and 3,000 meters and found new emotional contentment in the form of 270-pound British discus thrower Richard Slaney, her current companion. Best of all, for the first time in years she hasn't suffered any leg injuries. Or almost none. She did develop a sore tendon in her right leg three weeks ago after the orthotic inserts in her running shoes were chewed up by her 8-month-old Rottweiler, Samantha. "I got new ones, but they weren't quite the same," says Decker.
But now all the soreness had vanished, fortunately, and as Decker raced into her third lap she felt "strong, the strongest that I've felt, ever." Her 800-meter split of 2:06.94 put her 2.3 behind the record pace, yet those who had seen her race before, who had seen her set any of her 10 world or American records at distances from 1,500 to 10,000 meters in the last three years knew they were watching something special. Mary Decker had never looked so smooth, so relaxed, so powerful. In her third lap Decker was accelerating. Her U.S. mark of 3:59.43 was still in reach.
For the first time all evening the 14,399 fans who had crowded into ancient Stockholm Stadium roared their approval. They pulled Decker through the wide turns with rhythmic clapping and shouted her down the homestretch. The Tartan surface was deadly fast; the fans, in Decker's words, "fantastic, right to the end."
Decker had entered the gun lap at 2:54.46, moving to within .3 of the record pace. By then she was really flying and she crossed the finish line in 3:57.12. Decker had torn more than two seconds from her U.S. record and narrowed the gap considerably between herself and Tatyana Kazankina of the U.S.S.R., whose world mark is 3:52.47.
Afterward, Decker spoke of the confidence the Stockholm performance had given her to face her generally older and more muscular Soviet and Eastern European rivals in Helsinki. "I'll have to push the pace from the start," she said, "but even when they start to kick. I don't think they'll run away from me." And between now and Helsinki? "Oh, I'm running in Gateshead [ England] on Sunday," said Decker. "An 800." She paused, then smiled. "I'm going for another American record." That was Madeline Manning's 1:57.9, which had stood for seven years.
Decker has always been exceptional at 800 meters, winning her first national title at the distance in 1974, when she was only 15. Last summer she ran two of the fastest 800s in U.S. history, 1:58.33 and 1:58.43. "I'm really afraid it'll be windy at Gateshead," said Decker. "I hear the stadium there isn't enclosed. That could make a record impossible."
By Sunday, Decker had other worries—a cold and sore feet. She had contracted the cold during the half hour she had spent waiting around the victory stand in Stockholm. The next night, before the U.S. wrapped up its 232-186 team win, Decker was brought onto the track and presented with a huge bouquet of flowers. "Take another victory lap," prodded an official.