Heroines: Mary Decker Slaney
I know a lot about mustachioed runners— Walter George (the first man unofficially to break 4:10 in the mile), Alf Shrubb (who fought furious marathon-duels around Madison Square Garden as brass bands blared and fans brawled in the stands), Frank Shorter (who’s mustache won a gold medal), Kenny Moore (who looked more like a Doonesbury character than an Olympian), and of course Pre. Heroes.
I draw those guys a lot. I love their stories. But as I was thinking about making a series about famous running mustaches, I realized that as much as I know about the men that made running history, I know very, very little about the women. I knew nothing about the Heroines.
So I did what I usually when I want to learn more about something— I checked Wikipedia. Most of the women’s world records were set by Soviet-block runners, which, forgive me, I’ve never found compelling (largely because there’s a dense iron curtain protecting the world from their stories). The list of Olympic medal winners looked weird— I couldn’t find any consistency in events. Looking further into it, I found that up until 1972 the longest event available to women was the 800m (and even that had gone away for a few decades when offended Olympic officials didn’t want to be forced to watch women sweat).
So I did what I usually do when Wikipedia fails me— I texted a friend that lived through it (he has a great story about Eamonn Coughlin screaming at him in Montreal after my friend told him he ran a “brave race”). I asked him for a recommendation of ten women runners to look into— not just medal winners or world-record holders but runners with captivating tales.
Over the next month, I learned about Babe Didrickson who, unable to decide on a sport, simply excelled at them all, including track and field. I learned about Fannie Blankers-Koen, who only won four gold medals in a single Olympics because she thought six might be too many. I learned about Mary Decker, who, when healthy, could seemingly set world records at will.
While all of their accomplishments could equal the excitement of, say, Zatopek’s Famous Olympic Triple, each of their stories come with a unique brand of adversity born out of their gender:
Babe Didrickson felt forced to marry, so she married a professional wrestler who was either amenable to or ignorant of Babe loving other women.
Despite holding world records in every event she entered, Fanny Blanker-Koen was doubted by her own Dutch press simply because she was a mother and should be more focused on her children.
Articles written about a teenage Mary Decker read “Not Only Is She Pretty, But She’s Fast, Too,” and they’re wrought with references to her physique and the attention paid to her by much older male athletes.
Doris Brown, five-time World-Cross Country Champion, never got to win an Olympic medal because the male-dominated Olympic committee thought anything longer than the 800m would be too strenuous on the female form.
When I started running, I had heroes like Pre— brash and brave in the face of danger, always to the front of a race— or Zatopek— unrelenting in his training, embracing suffering for the sake of the sport. When my sister started running, I told her their tales. I wish I had known, though, about these heroines, because their struggles might be more empathetic to her own journey. My hope is that in spreading their stories, I can do my small part in polishing their rightful place in the running pantheon so that, someday, somebody’s daughter can find inspiration in their feats.
This is a series to recognize those Heroines.
Mary Decker possessed the same such superhuman force, able to channel so much of it through her feet that at fifteen she set her first world record and at sixteen endured her first career-ending injury. That force she could channel caught in her Achilles tendon, causing her calves to swell like sausages and her tibia to fracture.
She retired, crippled, to Colorado, passing the time by working at Frank Shorter’s running shop. Unable to contain herself, she ran a season with the University of Colorado, winning the indoor 400m then spending ten weeks in a cast.
That summer, a surgeon sliced through her Achilles sheath to relieve the constant pressure. Four months later, she set personal bests in the 1500 meters and the 800 meters. A month after that, she beat America’s two best milers. Then she got a second shin operation.
The next year, she became the second American under 4:30 for the mile then tore a muscle in her back and sat out half the season.
A year later, she set a world record in the mile, became the first woman ever under 4:20, then sat out a few months with plantar fasciitis.
She returned for the Olympic Trials, won them, then when the US boycotted them she went to Europe and ran 3:59 for the 1,500 meters before a third shin operation caused her to miss all of the following.
Despite this insane cycle of endless injury and brief brilliance, her career only got better.
She set seven world records the next year – from the mile to the ten-thousand. A year later, she ran 3:57 for the 1500 meters, which stood as an American record for over thirty years. Two years after that, she ran 4:16 for the mile, which remains an American record to this day.
Her career lasted from 1972 until 1999, when a last-ditch surgery (in an attempt to qualify for the Sydney Olympics) crippled her for good. In that time, she set 36 national records interspersed with just as many surgeries.
Bo Jackson’s superhuman strength enabled him to break bats. Mary Decker’s superhuman strength allowed her spirit to remain unbroken long after her body had succumbed.