Bob Hersh of Track & Field News had not even picked her to win a spot on the Helsinki team, believing her too susceptible to injury, and guessing that the emotional turmoil surrounding a separation from her husband, Ron Tabb, would make her even more vulnerable, particularly after Tabb made the marathon team for Helsinki.
Too, Decker had so dominated American women's running that she seldom had had a close contest. Surely she would be unprepared for the rough, tactical races she would have to run in the World Championships. Even when forging on to her records, she had never demonstrated a blazing kick.
So Helsinki was a revelation. The 3,000 was first. Decker avoided any chance of being imprisoned in a jostling pack by at once seizing the lead. A phalanx of the best women in the world on her heels didn't exactly cause her to emotionally disintegrate. "It was a good feeling, compared to being way out in front," she says. "You can't make mistakes, and you sure keep alert. It seemed no time at all until we were coming up to the last lap."
With 600 meters to go she began a gradual acceleration that left only one runner able to challenge as they entered the stretch—the redoubtable Kazankina, three times an Olympic champion, at 800 and 1,500 meters in Montreal and at 1,500 in Moscow.
Kazankina loomed alongside with 50 meters to run. Decker "took a deep breath, relaxed and went," outkicking her by four meters.
"Until that moment," says Hersh along with many others, "we never knew how good Mary Decker was."
The poetic climax came four days later in the 1,500. Again, Decker led, but this time less tranquilly. The Soviet champion, Zamira Zaitseva, used every trick known to wily milers to break Decker's concentration. "She hit me practically every stride the whole way," recalls Decker. "Not obviously, but just brushing elbows, touching shoes."
It had its effect. "I thought about taking a swing at her, but then I worried about being disqualified, too. I was conscious of the U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. thing there a little. But it's lucky I didn't have a relay baton this time. I might have thrown it again."
Zaitseva wasn't finished. With 170 meters left, she bolted past Decker and, too sharply, bore in to the rail. Decker had no choice but to back off to avoid contact. "It was a mistake, letting her cut me off," says Decker. "But I didn't want to have to make a sudden move. I stay more relaxed if I move into my sprint gradually. So I had to let her get a little lead, and then she surprised me by cutting in."
Decker had two yards to regain as they hit the stretch. She still needed one with 20 meters to go, but Zaitseva was tying up. Decker drew even with 10 meters left, shut her eyes and drove herself all out. "I lost my temper," she says. "I caught her because I was so angry." Zaitseva threw herself at the line, fell spectacularly and finished the race on her left side (see cover).