Mary Decker

Class of 1976

Mary Decker

On a Nike web page designed for its young sensation Mary Cain, who set some incredible prep records between 2010-14, she’s asked who she’s inspired by. It’s Mary Decker, she says, “Not only was she talented, but she also ran with such heart.” Cain could have picked numerous other outstanding prep, collegiate or pro runners who’ve competed during her lifetime. But the fact that she chose Mary Decker Slaney speaks volumes. With her incredible performances as a prep in the early-mid 70s – then as a pro so great in the early-mid 80s that she once held every single American outdoor track distance running record from 800m to 10,000m – Decker Slaney unquestionably continues to inspire.

In the early 1970s, Decker was one of the first youth distance running prodigies. Her family had moved to Southern California and she was inspired to join the Blue Angels Track Club while in 7th grade at Portola Junior High in 1971. It was immediately clear she had talent and ran 5:04.8 for the mile by season’s end.

The next year, in 1972, Decker was running elite-level times for older teens: 2:12.7 for 880y, 4:35.9 for 1,500m and a 4:55.0 mile. In winter of 1973, she ran a remarkable 4:40.1 — #2 all-time and a still-standing freshman class record. That summer, at age 14 and just after her 9th-grade year at Portola, she was invited to travel with a U.S. international team. She broke HS records for 800m at 2:02.43 in Munich and won a U.S.-USSR dual meet 800 over Soviet star Nijolė Sabaitė in Minsk. Decker also broke the HSR for the mile that year at 4:42.0. She began to attract significant media attention.

1974 brought more outstanding records. Decker broke the 800m indoor prep record three times, highlighted by a 2:02.4 800y/2:01.8 800m in San Diego that lasted until 2017, when Sammy Watson nipped the record at 2:01.78. She also came east for Millrose and snapped the 1000y standard with 2:26.7. Oudoors, she lowered her 800 HSR to 2:02.29, beating the Russians again in Durham.

Finally, as a junior in 1975, she returned to Millrose and ran 2:55.2 for 1000m – another prep record. Unfortunately, the rest of her prep career was plagued by compartment syndrome injuries in her lower legs.

When Decker’s career picked up full steam again, she had a long series of indoor and outdoor campaigns filled with top rankings, victories and top honors – more than there’s room for here. The greatest highlights included her 1983 IAAF World Championship double in Helsinki, as she swept the 1,500 and 3,000 meters and later was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. The years of 1982 and 1985 were also particularly notable; she set six world records in ’82 from a mile to 10,000m and won the James Sullivan Award as the “top amateur athlete” in the U.S.

Did You Know?

At one time in the 1980s, Mary Decker held every American distance running record from 800 meters to 10,000 meters.