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Off track, Mary Decker Slaney still satisfies competitive cravings

COURTESY: MARY SLANEY DECKER - Mary Slaney Deckers main mode of exercise is the ElliptiGO, and in recent years she has placed in the world championships of elliptical cycling.EUGENE — The world still moves quickly for Mary Decker Slaney, but with a decidedly different mode of operation.

“She hasn’t changed any,” says her husband, Richard Slaney. And in a way, he’s right.

At 56, Mary still possesses the drive that carried her to world distance running records three decades ago. Now, though, she gets her kicks riding something called an “ElliptiGO.”

It’s an elliptical bicycle that, as the advertisement goes, “delivers a high-performance workout experience that closely mimics running outdoors while eliminating the impact.”

Mary is hooked.

“It occupies a lot of my time,” she says over lunch at the Wild Duck Cafe, only a couple of blocks from Hayward Field, the home track of her heyday. “I do a lot of miles.”

“Last weekend,” her husband says, “she went out for a ride and was gone for 6 1/2 hours — 85 miles.”

“It was 87 — six hours,” Mary says with a smile. “And this weekend I need to get in at least 100, because I’m going to do an event on July 11 called the ‘California Death Ride.’”

“Sounds inviting, doesn’t it?” says Richard, eyebrows raised.

“It’s 129 miles over three mountain passes in the Lake Tahoe area,” Mary says. “I’m getting ready for it.”

During the 2012 Olympic Track & Field Trials, Mary met a group of people who introduced her to the ElliptiGO.

“I rode the thing for 10 minutes, and I thought, ‘I have to have one of these,’” she says. “It was something that could replace running.”

“An obsession was missing in her life,” Richard muses.

Mary rides the ElliptiGO at speeds up to more than 20 miles per hour.

“You can get going 32 to 35 on a steep hill, which is a little scary,” she says.

For the past three years, Slaney has competed in the World Championships of Elliptical Cycling at Palomar Mountain near San Diego. The 11.7-mile course climbs 4,200 feet at a grade that averages nearly 7 percent. She finished second in the open women’s division in 2012 and third in 2013 and ‘14, improving her time each year. She’ll be entered again in this year’s competition on Oct. 17.

“I’m going to be better this time,” she vows.

Her husband is just glad Mary has found something that can satisfy the competitive craving she had during a running career in which she achieved everything except what she wanted most — an Olympic medal.

By the time she was age 14 in 1972, the Garden Grove, Calif., native was ranked first in the U.S. and fourth in the world at 800 meters.

In 1973, she won the 800 in a U.S.-Soviet meet and set her first world record with an indoor mile of 4:40.1.

In 1974, she added world indoor records at 880 yards and 800 meters.

In 1982, Mary set six world records at distances from the mile to 10,000 meters and won the Sullivan Award as the country’s top amateur athlete.

In 1983, she won the 1,500 and 3,000 at the world championships in Helsinki (which became known as the “Double Decker”), was recipient of the Jesse Owens Award as the top U.S. track and field athlete, and was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year.

In 1985, she set a world outdoor mile record of 4:16.71 and won a dozen races on the Mobil Grand Prix circuit in what she considers “my strongest year competitive-wise.”

Thirty years later, Slaney still holds American records at 1,500 and 3,000 meters and in the mile. She remains a legendary figure on the U.S. track and field scene, though she and her husband are far removed from the sport in which they were once immersed.

COURTESY: MARY AND RICHARD SLANEY - The damp winters bother her, but Mary Slaney Decker and husband, Richard, probably will stay in the Eugene area year-round until he retires in a few years. They love being out in the country, yet close to the city where she often starred as a runner.For the past 11 years, the Slaneys have lived in a three-bedroom house on a 55-acre plot 20 minutes southwest of Eugene.

“It’s cool,” Richard says, “because we’re not very far from town, yet we’re out in the country.”

Their five dogs — three Weimaraners and two miniature wire-haired dachshunds — keep them company. Their only child, Ashley, 29, works for an insurance company in Medina, Ill.

“I do a lot of quilting and sewing,” Mary says. “Two years ago, we put in an organic garden, so that takes up a lot of time. Between that and the ElliptiGO and everything else, it’s busy.”

After two years running collegiately for the University of Colorado, Mary moved to Eugene as she was turning 21 in 1979. Years earlier, Steve Prefontaine had urged her to move to TrackTown USA.

“’Pre’ was so adamant about me being here,” she says. “He said it was the right place to be for a track and field runner, male or female. I came here sight unseen and decided this was where I was going to be. The Olympic Trials were going to be held here in 1980, so that was a real motivation.”

Thirty-six years later, Mary still calls Eugene home.

“We like it, but I have a lot of arthritic issues now,” she says. “The weather, the dampness, doesn’t help me in the winters. We’re considering getting a winter place somewhere warm when Richard retires.”

That might not be as soon as Mary wants.

“Probably five more years,” says Richard, 59. “I’ve dug too big a (financial) hole. But we’d like to be in a more pleasant climate in the winter months.”

The Slaneys met in 1984, a few months before Richard, a British discus thrower, competed in the Los Angeles Olympic Games. The 6-7, 300-pound Slaney, who won the “Britain’s Strongest Man” title in 1980 and ‘82, wed Mary on Jan. 1, 1985. He retired in 1986 and dived into the aeronautics business.

“I learned to fly later that year,” he says. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I’m a commercially rated pilot, but I buy airplanes for a living. I fly as a perk of the job, I guess.”

Richard operates two businesses out of the Eugene Airport — Military Tech Inc., and Rotorcraft Support Inc., the latter dealing with helicopter support.

“I’ve built 140 planes,” he says. “They’re all military planes. I travel a lot. I was in France four months last year. I bought airplanes from a French airport. (His crew) took these airplanes apart on a military base.

“I buy stuff. I’m not so good at selling. I have a few planes, and they’re all at the airport. I have some helicopters out and about the country. For a kid who didn’t really want to grow up — and I could never work for anybody — it’s been awesome.”

In the winter of 1980, Mary became the first woman member of Nike’s Athletics West track club in Eugene. Already, Mary was suffering from injuries to her lower extremities that would cause her to undergo 40 surgeries and would seriously affect her career.

Asked about regrets, Mary sighs.

“The injuries, of course,” she says. “I just feel like I never reached my potential. I didn’t have the consistency (of health) in my training to get stronger because I was hurt so often.

“That’s why when I found out about the ElliptiGO, I thought, ‘God, if I had this to put in my more nonimpact miles even when you were hurt, it would be different than running in the water or stationary bike or anything else.’ Those are things I can’t stand to do now, because I did so much of it because of injuries.”

Mary didn’t compete in the 1976 Olympics because of stress fractures to a lower leg. The U.S. boycott kept her from competing in the ‘80 Games at Moscow.

She was healthy for the ‘84 Games in L.A., in which she was a favorite to win gold in the 3,000. That was the race in which she collided with Great Britain’s Zola Budd and crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain. She was carried from the track in tears in the arms of Richard, then her fiance, a scene that will live in infamy in Olympic history but one Mary would just as soon forget.

Does Mary think about Budd anymore?

“Only when people bring it up,” she says.

“Not many people bring it up anymore,” Richard adds.

Mary failed to medal in the ‘88 Games and did not qualify in ‘92. In ‘96, at the age of 37, she competed in the 5,000 at the Atlanta Games but did not make the finals. Her last competitive race was in New Orleans in 1998, in which she ruptured a posterior tibial tendon in an ankle.

In 2000, she underwent surgery designed to take stress off her tendons. It was a disaster.

“It completely ruined my gait,” Mary says. “I could not come off my toes anymore. I spent 10 years trying to rehab, strengthen it, build it. I thought about having the surgery reversed. The downside to that was (with an adverse reaction) I could be almost completely crippled.”

During the 2012 Olympic Trials, Slaney started jogging again.

“I’d finally had come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to run anymore,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I just go out and shuffle along at 7, 7:30 (minutes per mile) pace, it’s better than nothing.’

“I was starting to go four times a week so I wouldn’t accumulate the stress on the problem areas. Then my left knee started hurting, and there was arthritis in the big joint of my right foot. It was very painful. I just can’t do it anymore.”

During the Prefontaine Classic last month, promoter Tom Jordan asked Slaney to be introduced to the crowd as one of the meet’s legends. She walked briskly through the stretch to a rousing ovation from the crowd.

“It was nice, but I did it as a favor to Tom,” she says. “It was hard to go down on the track and be there. I suppose it’s because I didn’t retire because I wanted to retire.”

Mary says she misses the training and the competition. The Slaneys rarely go to meets at Hayward and don’t follow the sport much anymore.

Arthritis runs in the Decker family. Both of her grandmothers suffered from the condition. Mary’s arthritic fingers are now gnarled.

“My niece is 31 or 32 and has had problems with her back for years,” Mary says. “Turns out it’s arthritis. I’ve had problems with my hands since my mid-30s.

“I take medication. It helps. It was progressing rapidly before I started the medication I’m on now, which slows it down. I still get flareups. The winters here are not good. You lay in bed sometimes and everything just hurts.

“But I go out and ride the ElliptiGO, and I feel better. I don’t know if it’s the endorphins or whatever, but I feel better.”

A year ago, Mary participated in the California Coast Classic, a fundraising event for The Arthritis Foundation ( It’s a 525-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Santa Monica, Calif., along Highway 1, scheduled for Sept. 26 through Oct. 3 this year. The goal is to raise $1 million for arthritis educational resources for adults and children, for the Juvenile Arthritis Conference, and for kids camps.

“It’s an absolutely gorgeous ride, and I’m going to do it again this year,” she says. “I was surprised to hear how many children are affected by juvenile arthritis. It’s bigger than any other disease. Some children die from it.

“It’s a great cause for me. The reason I initially got interested is because arthritis has been a large part of stopping me being as physical as I want to be.”

Everything considered, life isn’t bad for the Slaneys these days.

“Well, we drink a lot,” Richard jokes. “Self-medicating.”

“We’re winos,” Mary says with a grin. “I like Cabs. We like Pinot Gris.”

“I like more white wine than I used to,” Richard says, “but I like big Cabs.”

Today, Mary remains as the greatest female middle-distance runner in U.S. history. Her still-standing records are proof.

“I don’t know what to make of it,” she says. “There are women getting closer, but I’m surprised.

“I just know I would have liked to have had all the amenities athletes have now. The sports science, nutrition, psychological help, physical therapy, education — everything. I probably would have trained smarter. It would have helped me a ton.”

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Slaneys still angry about doping allegations

EUGENE — Mary Decker Slaney says she doesn’t know if Alberto Salazar is guilty of the doping charges leveled at the Nike Oregon Project running coach through a recent ProPublica article and BBC documentary.

The former distance running great and her husband, Richard Slaney, strenuously dispute reports, however, that she tested positive for testosterone during the 1996 Olympic Trials while working with Salazar as coach.

In May 1997, Slaney and two other athletes were suspended by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which stressed it was not presuming the athletes guilty of using banned substances, but that it had grown impatient because the cases had taken nearly a year to get settled. The U.S. Track & Field Federation eventually followed suit, barring the athletes from competing in the national championships that year.

Less than four months later, Slaney’s suspensions were lifted after a hearing with a USATF doping hearing board, which concluded that “Mary Slaney committed no doping violation last year.”

Eighteen years later, the Slaneys are still steamed about it.

“The test was total BS,” says Richard Slaney, 59, a former British discus thrower who wed Mary Decker in 1985. “The problem is, somebody leaked it to the press. The initial statement was, ‘Mary tested positive,’ which was not true. Had they not leaked it to the press, no one would have ever heard of it, because the test was clearly was wrong.”

In a statement to the BBC, Duke Law School professor Doriane Lambelet Coleman — a former nationally ranked 800 runner who helped with Slaney’s representation in the USATF doping hearing — echoed Richard’s comments.

Mary Slaney “never ‘tested positive for testosterone,’” Coleman wrote. “The (International Olympic Committee) laboratory reports are clear that her testosterone levels were always within her own normal range, which itself was always within the normal, allowable range. Those facts were never disputed.

“She was exonerated by the USATF because of this and because the IOC laboratories were unable to explain why their own internal scientific literature questioned the validity and reliability of the ... test as a proxy for doping, especially for women whose hormone levels naturally fluctuate.”

Coleman wrote that Slaney subsequently sued the IAAF in U.S. federal court but lost “because of a treaty, not because the IAAF proved she had committed a doping offense.” The law professor noted that the IAAF has since revised its procedures and the IOC Laboratories have stopped using the test as its basis to prosecute doping cases.

“Cases today are prosecuted only on the basis of valid and reliable evidence,” Coleman wrote. “That was Mary’s goal in suing the IAAF. Despite press reports suggesting otherwise, Mary did nothing wrong.”

Richard said during the year-long investigation, “the fight stopped being about Mary. The fight became about the test. ... it was just ridiculous. I spent a year of my life learning something that was totally useless in anything else I ever did. All it did was make me angry, because they knew that they were doing it wrong.”

Slaney, 56, said she never used steroids during an international career that spanned more than two decades beginning in the early 1970s.

Asked if she felt there is a problem with PEDs in track and field, Mary asked, “What are PEDs?”

Told they are performance-enhancing drugs, she responded, “I think every sport does.”

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s they were prevalent in track and field,” said Mary, who has lived in Eugene since 1979. “Most of the problems were with the Eastern bloc countries — the women in particular. I remember how different they looked.”

“When I first started throwing back in the ‘70s, people talked about (PEDs) openly,” Richard said. “The throwers certainly did. It was like, ‘What are you taking this week?’”

Mary Slaney also denied reports that Salazar was her coach in 1996. She said she was training with Bill Dellinger, the former University of Oregon coach, after her previous coach, Luis de Oliveira, left Eugene. Slaney said she has known Alberto since she first moved to Eugene in 1979, after which both were members of Nike’s Athletics West track club.

“We have run together off and on for all those years,” she said. “The guy has always been helpful, but Bill was my coach. Alberto has always been there, too, but he has never been my primary coach.”

The Slaneys and Salazar have remained friendly through the years.

“I pay attention to what’s going on with him,” Mary Slaney said. “I’ve known Galen Rupp since he was a high schooler. I remember Alberto calling me all excited, that he’d found this amazing talent at the high school he was coaching at. ‘He’s a natural,’ Alberto said.

“We had his Central Catholic team to our house for a spaghetti feed the night before a state meet one year. After dinner, Alberto had them watch my races at the 1983 world championships to provide them motivation.”

The Slaneys saw Salazar at the Prefontaine Classic last month.

“We hadn’t talked to Alberto for probably a year and a half,” Richard said. “I asked him how he was doing, and he said, ‘Getting tired of the BS.’ I thought he meant the normal BS.

“I just wish we’d have been left out of all this, because it’s totally irrelevant.”

The Slaneys say they are no longer close to the track and field scene.

“We don’t know anything about anything anymore,” Richard said. “But I remember talking to Alberto and Galen about how much testing they do now. Much of it is random testing, which they started to do at the end of our (competing era).”

When the subject of masking agents was brought up, Mary asked, “What are those?”

Masking agents have helped many athletes hide or prevent detection of a banned substance through the years.

“The problem is, people ask, ‘What about Lance Armstrong?’” Richard said. “I have no idea how he beat the tests, but he had millions of dollars at his disposal. He cheated, but that doesn’t mean everybody is cheating.”

Does Slaney think Salazar is guilty of the allegations?

“I have no way of knowing,” she said. “I feel bad for Alberto at the moment, because he is a friend of mine. And for Galen, and Mo (Farah). Everybody is being linked.

“What I do know is, what they’re going through is very hurtful, it is very draining, it is exhausting. It’s horrible.”

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