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With pressure on others, Slaney tries for spot on team, medal at Barcelona

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EUGENE, Ore. -- Mary Decker Slaney had seen her daughter, Ashley, off to school, run a few errands and now was relaxing over a cup of cappuccino.

She was talking about how her life had changed in recent years, how she had learned to combine family and track. At 33, she was training for another shot at the Olympics, but this time she said things were different.

"I'm not putting a lot of pressure on myself," Slaney said. "I'm going to train as well as I can and whatever happens happens.

"I don't want to make this [Olympic year] like the end of the world. I've made that mistake before. I'm not going to make it again."

Of course, most people would have given up by now. Slaney was just a teen-age whippet in pigtails and braces when she began her pursuit of an Olympic medal in the '70s.

Over the years, she became the most accomplished female runner in U.S. history and set American records for every distance from 800 through 10,000 meters, but she never won the race that mattered most. She never won the Olympics.

Slaney's Olympic box score reads like a cruel joke. Consider:

* 1976: Sidelined by shin splints.

* 1980: Sidelined by the U.S. boycott.

* 1984: Injured in a collision with Zola Budd in the 3,000-meter final, she was carried off the track, weeping, by her husband, British shot putter Richard Slaney.

* 1988: Weakened by a viral infection, she finished eighth in the 1,500 meters and 10th in the 3,000 meters at Seoul.

There was an embarrassed silence in the interview room after the last race in Seoul when Slaney told the assembled press: "I still have Barcelona."

Poor Mary, everyone thought. She just won't let go. She won't admit it is over.

Well, maybe it's not over.

Maybe Slaney knew what she was talking about. She might have Barcelona after all.

She is running 50 miles a week at the University of Oregon with her sights on the U.S. track trials in June in New Orleans. If she qualifies there -- and she fully expects to -- she will be on her way to her third Olympics in July.

"Those people who thought they saw the last of me [in 1988] will have a rude awakening," Slaney said. "I don't give up easily."

Husband Richard, nibbling a muffin on the other side of the table, rolled his eyes.

"That's an understatement," he said.

The scars on Slaney's legs bear witness to her grit. She has undergone a dozen operations during her track career, including four Achilles' tendon surgeries in 13 months (June 1989 to July 1990). Stubbornly, she keeps fighting back.

She could have bowed out at any time, done the old "I-gave-it-my-best-shot" routine and called it a career. No one would have blamed her. But Slaney claims she never considered it, not even for a moment, no matter how many people wrote her off.

"I've put so much into my career that I can't bear the thought of leaving things unfinished," Slaney said. "That would be terribly frustrating for me. Maybe I won't accomplish everything, but I feel it's important for me to try.

"Winning an Olympic medal, obviously, is part of it. That's something I've wanted to do for a long time. But I also think I have the potential to run better times. Some women distance runners don't peak until their mid-30s, so I might still be peaking. Who knows?

"There's just a lot of questions out there and I can't answer any of them by quitting. I can only answer them by running.

"Besides," Slaney said, "I really love the sport. Despite all I've been through, I still love it."

Even as she spoke, Slaney was nursing a slight injury, a minor tear in a nerve near her foot. She had taken some time off and now she was ready to step up her training under Oregon track coach Bill Dellinger.

Slaney has worked with Dellinger since 1989. She has gone through seven coaches in her career. Most of them were driven off by her temperamental nature.

Bill Bowerman, a retired University of Oregon coach, lasted two weeks with Slaney in 1983. Said Bowerman: "I just couldn't put up with the tantrums."

But marriage and motherhood seem to have mellowed Slaney. She has accepted Dellinger's program, although she finds it a bit on the conservative side.

She wishes she could run faster in practice, but Dellinger keeps a firm grip on the reins. He doesn't want Slaney to risk another crippling injury between now and the Olympic trials.

For Slaney, the biggest difference between this Olympic quest and the ones in the past is that she no longer has a flotilla of corporate sponsors, fashion consultants and public relations types bobbing in her wake.

In 1984, Slaney was doing ads for Nike and Timex. She was the official Kodak Camera Girl for the L.A. Olympics. She was in demand for interviews and appearances. She couldn't run a lap at the University of Oregon without someone asking, "Hey, Mary, you got a minute?"

Today, her life is much calmer.

She has an agent, Brad Hunt, who checks in once a week. She has a contract with one shoe company (Brooks) and that's it. She doesn't have a personal trainer or a private coach. She has to share Dellinger with the Oregon varsity.

The phone doesn't ring as often, the media spotlight is just an occasional flicker. Slaney can be found some days jogging alone in the park while Richard pushes Ashley, age 5, on the swings.

If some people have forgotten about Slaney, which they apparently have, that suits her fine.

"All it means is there is less pressure on me, which can only help," Slaney said. "I don't have a lot of commitments, I don't have to drop what I'm doing and fly somewhere for an appearance. I can concentrate on my training.

"In the past, especially in 1984, I spent half my time saying no to people. That's one reason why I've tried to keep a low profile the past year. I don't want to get in that [whirl] again."

Slaney made a quiet re-entry to the track scene last season. She won the women's 1,500-meter run at the Bruce Jenner Invitational in San Jose, Calif., by out-kicking the favorite, PattiSue Plumer. Slaney's time was 4:04.92, the fastest by an American woman in two years.

Before anyone had time to get excited, Slaney suffered another injury (a strained calf) and missed qualifying for the World Championships. She came back to race later in the year and ran well in Europe and Australia, but the results were buried in the American press.

No matter, Slaney had proven the point to herself. She could keep pace with the top runners; all she had to do was stay healthy. That has been her approach this year.

At the moment, Slaney plans to enter only one event in Barcelona. She has not decided if it will be the 1,500 or the 3,000 meters. She must qualify first at the U.S. trials, which is no sure thing.

Slaney will be up against some talented youngsters, including Plumer (the top-ranked American at 3,000 meters), Annette Peters, Shelly Steely, Suzy Favor and former Villanova star Vicki Huber, who finished four spots ahead of Slaney in the 3,000 meters at Seoul.

The top three women in each event make the U.S. team. No one gets a spot on sentiment. Everyone, even a legend such as Mary Decker Slaney, must qualify.

If Slaney makes the U.S. team, she will be an underdog in Barcelona. The Europeans have a lock on the women's middle distances. At the last Olympics, women from Eastern Europe won nine of the 12 medals from 800 to 10,000 meters.

Slaney believes that with the collapse of the Communist bloc sports machine, steroids will be less of a factor at these Olympics. If so, Slaney expects the top European women ("Ninety percent of them aren't clean," she once said) to come back to the pack.

"It will be a fast field, regardless," Slaney said. "I'm not concerned with that as much as I am my own physical condition. If I'm healthy, everything else will fall into place.

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