By Susan Reed
October 17, 1994 12:00 PM

MARY DECKER SLANEY IS ON A MISSION. In the kitchen of her rambling, ranch-style house in Eugene, Ore., America’s greatest woman middle-distance runner ever, her husband, Richard, and their 8-year-old daughter Ashley are peering at an MRI scan. What they see, amid Mary’s fragile tendons, bones and muscles, would discourage most people away from even a casual jog. (“They cut a lot of heel bone off,” Richard tells Ashley, who screws up her face.) But Slaney, 36, isn’t most people. “I hope to be running by the end of September,” she says bluntly.

It has been 10 years since the 1984 Summer Olympics when Slaney—then Mary Decker—crashed to the track at the Los Angeles Coliseum following one of the most famous collisions in sports history. In the final laps of the 3,000-meter race, Zola Budd, South Africa’s barefoot 18-year-old wunderkind (then running for Great Britain), made a move to take the lead. “I let her, and then she cut across too soon,” Slaney recalls. “Even though I had people telling me she did it intentionally, I never thought she did.” She adds, “I don’t hate her. I hated the fact that it was an opportunity for me that got messed up.” Slaney, who last saw Budd 18 months ago when she beat her by 10 seconds in a mile race in Sydney, is looking for an Olympic reprieve. “Now that the Games are going to be in Atlanta in 1996,” she says, “I’d like to be there—healthy and fit.”

That would be a victory in itself. During two decades of competition, Slaney has racked up 36 American and 17 world records. But her training regimen of 70 miles a week has exacted a price: 20 operations—nearly one a year—to repair shin splints, inflamed Achilles tendons and a heel-bone deformation.

Recognizing that she cannot afford further medical intervention if she is to be ready for the ’96 Olympics, Slaney has turned to her friend Alberto Salazar, a world-class marathoner and himself a chronic overtrainer, to help devise an injury-free program for her. Salazar’s plan is to limit Slaney to 50 miles a week, some of them to be run on a treadmill, which is easier on her feet. “Mary’s headstrong and stubborn,” says Salazar. “Athletes at her level tend to push themselves to the brink.” Often, he adds, runners fail “not because they didn’t train hard enough, but because they trained too hard.”

Slaney’s fleetness was apparent early on. One of four children born to John Decker, a New Jersey tool-and-die maker, and his wife, Jackie, she took up formal competition when the family moved to Huntington Beach, Calif., when she was 11. She entered a local cross-country race on a whim and ran away from the pack. The next year, she says, “I knew I wanted to run in the Olympics.”

By age 14, Mary had set her first world record in the 1,000 meters and was already feeling the effects of overtraining. Several years later she underwent shin surgery, necessitated by compartment syndrome, a condition in which the calf muscles become too big for the sheaths surrounding them. In 1977 she headed to the University of Colorado, Boulder, on a full track scholarship—where despite chronic pain she kept competing. Two years later, her injuries aggravated by training on snow, she left Colorado for Oregon.

There, Slaney met Ron Tabb, a marathoner whom she married in 1981, but divorced 21 months later. Mary says her 1985 marriage to Richard Slaney, whom she met at an awards dinner in 1983, and the arrival of Ashley have made her happy—and improved her running. “Richard really helps,” says Mary of her husband, who left competition in 1986 and is now a businessman who restores antique airplanes. “When my training schedule conflicts with picking up Ashley at school or piano lessons, he takes up the slack.” Besides, their differing personalities seem to mesh nicely. “I’m an artistic-type person,” says Mary. “Richard’s an aeronautical engineer. Everything’s black-and-white to him. He can see when I’m overdoing it, which helps me in training.”

Slaney says parenting has kept her from fretting too much during periods of convalescence. Lately she has kept busy sewing Ashley’s black-cat Halloween costume. “We’ve done things as a family that sort of take your mind off things,” says Mary. “And Ashley’s had a really good summer.”

Slaney is hoping for an equally good fall. In recent races she has been as fast as ever. Last autumn she set a course record of 32.38 minutes in a 10-kilometer race in Phoenix. Says her friend Cathie Twomey Bellamy, a former Olympian: “Mary’s more focused on what she wants than ever.” What Slaney wants is a gold medal. This month she will start running—slowly and carefully—toward Atlanta. “I dream about being healthy,” she says. “That’s all I need to be.”