EUGENE, Oregon (Reuters) - Even after all the pain, the surgery and the heartbreak, Mary Slaney still wants to run.
“If I could get healthy, I would get out there and see how much an almost 51-year-old body could do,” America’s greatest female middle-distance runner told Reuters in a recent interview. “But I can’t get healthy enough orthopaedically.”
A multitude of operations, more than 30 by her count, has left her unable to run competitively.
“I guess it was ‘99 I had surgeries on my legs and my feet that was supposed to help me stay healthy, help me enough to train...I was looking at starting to train for marathons,” she said. “Well, this surgery, it just destroyed what there was left.”
More recent operations have not solved the problems for the former 1,500 and 3,000 metres world champion who, as Mary Decker, became known for the on-track collision with Britain’s Zola Budd that destroyed her hopes of winning the 1984 Olympic 3,000 title.
So Slaney jogs every other day and hikes in the woods with her three Weimaraner dogs on the 55-acre property she and her husband of 24 years, former British discus thrower Richard Slaney, own outside Eugene.
“If I go out and do too much or try to go too fast, I wind up with stress fractures,” said Slaney, who set 17 official and unofficial world records.
Sewing, quilting, gardening and renovating occupy much of her time.
“What I am really, really getting into now is quilting,” said Slaney.
There is even a sewing room and a new sewing machine, a Christmas gift from Richard.
For the most part, memorabilia from her running days had been packed away, she said.
“If you walked into our house you wouldn’t think: ‘Oh, you are totally into sports’,” Slaney said. “It’s like more quilts...more normal things.”
The yearn to run remains, however.
“Part of it is the competitive thing,” said Slaney, whose first international triumph came as a pigtailed 14-year-old in a meeting between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“Part of it is just because it makes me feel good. People talk about this runner’s high thing. I never really understood it until I couldn’t do it.”
More relaxed than during her competitive running days, she did not hesitate to add a chuckle when talking about life today.
“I have a nice life,” said Slaney, who turns 51 on Aug. 4. “I love my life; I love my family.”
Husband Richard is a successful businessman and daughter Ashley, now 23 and a university graduate, has her own career.
”I am actually a very shy person,“ Slaney said. ”People years and years ago thought I was just stuck up because I was not out there talking...I have always had trouble talking myself up.
“We live out in the country and there are days I don’t care if I ever leave the property. I‘m out there with my dogs and cats and doing my gardening, sewing, and I am perfectly happy,” she said.
The transition from runner to someone watching others circle the track is still happening.
“I am getting there,” she said, noting later: “It is easier for me now to watch the women that are running because they are not my contemporaries.”
Sometimes, though, especially when major meetings are in Eugene, the desire to be out there again comes back.
“Last year at the (U.S.) Olympic trials, there was one evening in particular, I guess it was July 4...I just kind of lost it,” said Slaney who, for all her successes, never won an Olympic medal.
“I hate the fact that I can’t participate,” said Slaney, adding that retirement had been forced on her because of the injury problems.
“When that happens you don’t feel like in your mind...I don’t want to say closure...but you don’t have sort of this feeling that I did the most I could or the best I could.”