She then worked for a time with retired Oregon Coach Bill Bowerman, who felt honored to be entrusted with her talent and a little burdened with her temperament. Bowerman, in the mode of a good teacher, wants his runners to strive for independence. He is superb as a counselor, a stater of principles, but he didn't have the time to offer daily support. With a hint of impatience, he realized Decker needed more, and a transfer was arranged.
Brown, an expert in running physiology and director of Athletics West, took over her coaching, though he continued to consult with Bowerman. The progressive acceleration by which Decker controlled the Helsinki 3,000 was a Bower-man suggestion.
But it was Brown, a man described by all who know him as beneficently soothing, who assumed the role of constant aide. Decker, who is candid about her psyche, goes right to the heart of it. "He was so calming, so confident in me that he was like a father, and when you've had a family background like mine...that's wonderful."
Brown shrank not at all from this. "I could understand how people might have seen her as a spoiled brat, but I knew she wasn't. She's done well with all the attention that's been shown her all her life, but through it all, she's really been searching for a family."
Brown's coaching was the essence of confidence. "If we keep you healthy," he told Decker, "no one can beat you." He began monitoring Decker's every reaction to training, in blood-cell count, body fat, hours of sleep. Always he urged caution and consistency. That was the physical foundation of her present success. And by this summer, he knew her pretty well, too.
"She's matured so much," he says in a tone that can only be called paternal. "On the plane to Helsinki she giggled the whole way. That meant to me that she was starting to get a little hyper. There were days to go yet before her preliminary races. There was the danger of her depleting her reserves. I said only, 'When you're giggling, I know you're dripping the adrenaline out.' She responded, calmed right down, and...well, you saw how she controlled her emotions in the races."
Decker took on more family in September 1981 when she married Ron Tabb. It did seem that Tabb, cheerful, energetic, a gifted but until then erratic marathoner, was the one guy who could set aside his own career to help Decker.
Of course, this would be no contemporary, 50-50, mutual-support kind of marriage. All Mary's friends understood that. She'd given fits to more than one suitor with her expectations that they run with her, plan races with her, travel with her, negotiate agreements for her and sometimes just love her like the little girl she always was at heart. When that had been too much for them, she had been quick to look elsewhere.
Decker did benefit from Tabb's support, his reinforcement of Brown's cautions on mileage and speed. He was there at every one of her world-record races in 1982. But it seems that try as he might, he wasn't the guy. His constant nearness began to wear on Decker.
The problem, oversimplified, was that Tabb got a little crazy after Decker's races. The perhaps inevitable reaction of a good athlete to becoming a supporting player came out in a hurtful inconsistency. "He was unhappy with me if I ran well because I got so much attention," Decker said last spring (a judge mercifully threw a gag order over both parties last month; their divorce was to become final Dec. 23). "And he was unhappy if I ran poorly, because I ran poorly. I felt I couldn't win."