Slaney back in the running for world record

Mike Rowbottom on the American athlete who has found her old self again
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When Mary Slaney - then Decker - was 12 years old, she ran a marathon, a quarter-mile, a mile and a two-mile race in the space of seven days.

Not the sort of regime to guarantee a long career in athletics, you would have thought. And yet, 26 years later, the greatest United States middle distance runner of all time is here in Paris seeking the world indoor 1500 metres title and a 17th world indoor best.

Regrets? She's had a few, and mentioned them - most notoriously after the 1984 Olympic 3,000m final when she fell after colliding with Zola Budd. Her histrionics thereafter earned her the title of "Whiner of the Year" from one US newspaper.

But if her voice has often been raised in complaint, there has been much to complain about, at least in terms of bad luck and injury.

Although she earned "Double Decker" headlines after taking the 1500 and 3000m titles in the inaugural World Championships of 1983, her record thereafter has been ill-starred.

She has not taken part in any World Championships, indoor or out, since then, and her record in the Olympics is an unhappy one. She was considered too young for the US trials before the 1972 Olympics, missed 1976 with injury, 1980 through a boycott, fell in 1984 and has had her performances in 1988, 1992 and 1996 undermined by illness.

Slaney's operations have kept pace with her record-breaking. Her 19th, three years ago, virtually reconstructed an Achilles tendon. Although she feared she would never compete again, she returned to win a place at last year's Olympics, but her fitness was undermined by a condition she subsequently discovered to be exercise-induced asthma.

Slaney has rationed her running since returning to action last year, and that restraint, combined with her new health regimen of nasal sprays, inhalers and longer warm-ups, appears to have benefited her.

Last December, she stepped on to an indoor track for the first time in eight years, winning the mile at New York's Millrose Games - where she had first competed in 1974 as the 15-year-old pigtailed "little Mary" Decker.

The pigtails are long gone; the talent remains. At the age of 38, Slaney - who has a 10-year-old daughter, Ashley - is aiming to become the first woman to run the indoor 1500m in under four minutes. At the US trials last weekend, she ran 4min 03.80sec, the fastest time in the world for seven years - within range of the 4:00.80 she ran as a 22-year-old, and the Romanian Doina Melinte's time of 4:00.27 which surpassed it as the world best seven years ago.

"I feel like my old self again," Slaney said after her trials win in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. "At the moment I feel I could run under four minutes. There is a good chance the world record is in jeopardy. I'm capable of going with people at that pace, helping to make it a reality or being the reality."

If the latter turns out to be the case, the reality for Slaney will be a pay-out of $100,000 (pounds 62,000) - $50,000 for the win, $50,000 for the record.

That would represent a handsome reward for her endurance. As for the future, she remains open to the suggestion of competing at 42 in the Sydney Olympics. "You appreciate it when you've lost something and then get a chance to get it back," she said. "When the Olympic year comes again, if I'm healthy, you can bet it will drive me." It's a big if; but the drive has never been in doubt.