Decker strode across the finish upright, opened her eyes and coasted to a stop, her expression blank. "I hadn't seen her fall," she says. "My eyes had been shut. I didn't know I'd won until I saw the replay on the scoreboard." Even then she was not observably rapturous. Her expression was less of triumph than justice restored. "The only way of getting back at her was to win."
That done, and a cooling victory lap taken, Decker immediately turned her full attention to doing it all over again, and better, at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In her postrace interview she allowed that it was wonderful to be the first-ever world champion in her events, but that people had to understand she had missed the 1976 Games in Montreal with injury, missed 1980 in Moscow through boycott, and that she had been brought up from the age of 10 near Los Angeles. "It just seems perfect," she says now.
To the observer it was Decker herself who'd seemed perfect. She'd run smarter, faster and tougher than anyone else. Her races had provided riveting images. Indeed, months later her Athletics West coach, Dick Brown, says, "I continue to be amazed at the number of people, not necessarily track fans, who come up to say, 'I get goose bumps or I get tears in my eyes when I think about it.' "
And even at Helsinki she was affirming that her greatest victories yet weren't going to dilute her lifelong Olympic passion, which seemed to raise a question of perception. How was it that an athlete of such ability and balance hadn't been able to be seen for what she was until then?
Because the rest of what she was got in the way. Decker, more than any other runner, blooms in partnership with others, with coaches, with close friends, with lovers. There has always seemed a schism in her nature, between Decker in competitive flight, controlling things—"I am more comfortable on the track; I have more confidence there than in anything else in my life"—and Decker the rest of the time, buffeted by circumstance. It has been easy to doubt Decker's competitive force, to get it mixed up with her constant requests for reassurance, with her need to depend on a good support team.
The roots of this are in her very early experience, in a family not constructed to supply her with unconditional love. During her first 10 years, in Bunnvale, N.J., Mary's parents, John and Jacqueline Decker, in her recollection, "were never close." In 1978 Mary was quoted in this magazine as saying, "The atmosphere was dominated by my mother. My father is a very quiet person. My mother is a very unquiet one." Though chagrined, Jacqueline Decker did not challenge the truth of that assertion, and we can see the characters of both parents contending in Mary still. She can be demanding. She can be shyly coy. She can show an explosive temper. She can sit all evening at the feet of a friend and not say anything, just smile and let the talk wash over her.
Seeking acceptance outside her family led Decker, at 11, to running. Her need to please combined with her prodigious natural talent to produce, first, a host of junior and open records, and then, as she raced too much and trained too hard, a succession of injuries. In early 1975 she developed fiery pain in her shins. Casts, therapy and rest helped not a whit. It wasn't until mid-1977, with the Montreal Olympics long past, that New Zealand's 5,000-meter world-record holder, Dick Quax, met Decker and told her of an operation that had saved him from the same pain, which was the result of the then newly diagnosed "compartment syndrome." It occurs when the muscles have grown too big for their surrounding sheaths. After a surgeon sliced through the confining membranes, Decker was running free in less than a month.
She has had that operation performed twice more by now, as well as surgery on an Achilles tendon. In 1977 she was in two auto accidents. In 1979 a fall tore a muscle in her back and wiped out half her year. She suffered from plantar fascitis (an inflamed connective tissue on the bottom of her right foot) in 1980. In 1981, having just left the hospital after her third shin operation, she went to a Jackson Browne concert in Eugene, Ore., someone accidentally bumped into her crutches and she fell on both fresh incisions, which made for a long, worrisome recovery.
Yet Decker does not seem to be classically accident-prone. She is deft in movement and concentrates on what she's doing. Rather, she seems, like Gus Grissom or Gerald Ford, one to whom Things Happen. It happened again this year when a truck rear-ended her car, and she spent the spring with a sore neck.
The effect of all these hurts was to accentuate Decker's need for others, for the comforting word, the hug. She depended on Quax for all that, and coaching, too, until 1980.