Jerry Crowe

Mary Decker Slaney bounces back after 'nightmare' moment

She lost out on Olympic glory in 1984 after her collision with Zola Budd and fall in the 3,000-meter final. But the greatest American female middle-distance runner says she can't complain about her life.

Mary Decker Slaney deserved better than to have her running career defined by a fall, even if it was maybe the most memorable tumble in sports history.

She deserved better than to stumble from grace.

But fate intervened, the greatest middle-distance runner in U.S. women's track and field history collided with Zola Budd at the Coliseum in 1984 and an indelible Olympic moment was embedded in the public consciousness.

"A living nightmare," America's former running sweetheart later called the split-second entanglement that knocked her from the 3,000-meter final.

Mary Decker Slaney
Nearly a quarter-century later, dyed-in-the-wool U.S. track nuts probably couldn't name all the track and field gold medalists from the Los Angeles Games, Slaney says, but even little old ladies still recognize the woman who tripped. "Oh, yeah," Slaney says they tell her, "you were the one that fell over."

Notes the only runner, male or female, to set U.S. records at every distance from 800 meters to 10,000 meters: "I think it's flattering that people still remember."

Married since January 1985 to Richard Slaney, a British Olympic discus thrower who carried her from the Coliseum infield Aug. 10, 1984, the former Mary Decker is happily ensconced in Eugene, Ore., and refreshingly resigned to her unfortunate place in Olympic history. The Slaneys, whose daughter Ashley Lynn graduated last month from UC San Diego, share a 55-acre spread on the edge of town with three Weimaraners -- Cleo, Athena and Ranger -- and five cats.

"I garden," Slaney says of her No. 1 chore and favorite activity. "We have a lot of property and we take care of it mostly ourselves, so that's what I spend a lot of time doing, which I love because I'm outside."

Known as "Little Mary Decker" when she burst upon the scene as a pigtailed 14-year-old, Slaney will turn 50 on Aug. 4. She feels great, she says, but leg injuries have caught up to the New Jersey-born former champion, who moved to Orange County when she was 10 and started running a year later. Because of a series of stress fractures, she says, she hasn't raced in 10 years.

"I can jog, but I can't run," says Slaney, who will serve as honorary spokeswoman and starter for the Keep L.A. Running charity 5K and 10K runs Sunday at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey. "That's hard for me. I like the fact that I can jog for fitness, but to me there's a huge difference between jogging and running."

Of course, Slaney's definitions of jogging and running might differ from a typical runner's. Even if it didn't always look as if she were enjoying herself -- "Mary approaches a race as if she were hoping for a call from the warden," the late Jim Murray wrote -- she set 36 national records in her career, some of which still stand, and nearly 20 official and unofficial world records. At the first world championships, at Helsinki, Finland, in 1983, she won the 1,500 and the 3,000, a so-called "Double Decker" that prompted Sports Illustrated to name her sportswoman of the year.

None other than Zola Budd called her "one of my heroes."

These days, a frustrated Slaney moves at a slower pace. Nine years of physical therapy, however, attest to her determination to one day feel sound enough to train seriously for a marathon, a goal that so far has eluded her.

"But I can't complain about my life," Slaney says. "I have a really nice life. I have a great family and I live in a gorgeous part of the country."

As time passes, she says, even her Olympic disappointments seem less crushing. Denied a chance to compete in Moscow because of the U.S.-led boycott in 1980, Slaney in 1984 literally ran into Budd, an 18-year-old South African competing for Britain. Midway through the 3,000, with the barefooted Budd leading and Slaney charging, Slaney tripped over Budd's legs and fell to the track, out of the race but not out of the spotlight. As Budd kept running, eventually finishing a distant seventh behind gold medalist Maricica Puica of Romania, cameras caught the fallen Slaney wailing in pain, an image that endures.

Her chance for Olympic glory gone, the American cut a sympathetic figure . . . until she blamed Budd, a charge that track officials dismissed and the general public viewed as whining, tarnishing Slaney's Golden Girl image.

Forever linked though they barely knew each other, Slaney and Budd later exchanged letters, Slaney says. "We both felt like, 'My God, this has turned into this big battle between us,' and there wasn't one," notes Slaney, adding that the two have not spoken since 1992. "It was like, well, that's what happens when you get on the track: You race, some people get spiked, some get tripped, whatever.

"It was not a personal issue."

Nor, Slaney says, is it a nightmare that still haunts.

"I've never felt that I was less of an athlete or not accomplished athletically because I didn't win an Olympic medal," she says. "It's definitely something I would have liked to have added to my resume, but at the same time I think I can look back at my athletic career and feel that I was one of the best."

jerome.crowe@latimes.com