When ESPN approached me to pitch a story for the Nine for IX series, I immediately thought of Mary Decker. In the 1970's and '80's, she dominated American women's track from the 800 to the 3,000 meters. She became a well-known track star in the middle distances, and had one of first lucrative running careers. As an up-and-coming track athlete, I joined legions of girls who wanted to run just like Decker.
From the age of 12 to 27, running, competing and pursing the Olympic dream defined me. There are meets that are seared in my sensory memory, so when I think of them my heart rate accelerates, my breathing deepens, and in slow motion the critical moments replay in tunnel vision before my eyes. It is like I'm on the track again. The most vivid and haunting memories are always the extremes such as a devastating loss or a remarkable victory. One such victory is the time I broke the national record in the 800 meters at the age of fourteen. It was also the first time I was talked about as someone to watch, as the next possible Mary Decker. That was high praise, and a responsibility I took seriously.
Decker held American record in every event from the 800 to the 3000 meters. Three of which currently stand more than thirty years later. In 1983, she became the only American woman ever to win the World Championship in the 1500 and 3000 meters. With breathtaking grit and determination, the wiry All-American Decker ran down the extremely strong and muscular Russians to cross the finish line first - in both events. It was stunning. But that was how Decker competed. If she got on the line you knew you were in for a championship worthy battle to the finish. That was the Mary I looked to emulate.
But the crux of the story is the 1984 Olympics. Where Decker lost as spectacularly as she usually won.
In 1984, at the seasoned age of 26, Decker wanted to win the gold. Instead of running prelims, semi-final and finals in two events, she focused only on the 3000 meters. Reciprocating for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, the Russians boycotted. In the 3000 meters final, the main competition was a Romanian, Maricica Puica, and a waifish teenager from South Africa running for Britain. Watching on TV at home, I remember thinking this will be Decker's moment for gold.
The gun went off, the race progressed and then with three laps to go, the unexpected happened. Having tangled with Budd, in an instant Decker fell. Just that fast she was out of the race. The live camera coverage stayed on her, capturing her agony as though the race had stopped. The world watched Decker grabbing her hip and writhing in the in field crying unable to get up. As her competitors raced on she looked down the track at her lost opportunity for a gold medal. The iconic image is part of our collective Olympic memory.
At the post race press conference, Decker cried and lashed out blaming Budd for cutting her off. She felt the fury of an incomplete effort. Finishing the race and losing would have been easier take on the Olympic stage and with the world watching. In the press, Decker went from America's track champion to being dubbed the biggest sore loser. To this day, Decker will not watch the race -- and may not watch "Runner" even though she's interviewed in it. Most likely, her memories of the 1984 race, fall and aftermath are vivid enough.
As a young athlete and up-and-coming Decker, I joined the chorus and condemned her for being a bad sport. Nearly thirty years later, my opinion has broadened. The mistake is not what happened in 1984. The mistake is that it has come to define Decker's athletic legacy when, in fact, she is singular. I did not become the next Mary Decker. Not one young athlete since has been able to come close to her caliber and dominance. Taking the good with the bad, it is time to revisit Decker's decades long career in its entirety -- and reclaim our greatest American middle distance runner.
RUNNER premieres on August 13th at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN as part of ESPN Films' and espnW's Nine for IX series.
This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and ESPN, in conjuncture with the latter's 'Nine for IX' film series, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Title IX was a landmark legislative victory for justice that prohibited discrimination by gender in schools and sports. To see all the posts in the series, click here. To learn more about 'Nine for IX,' click here.