GARDEN GROVE, CALIF. T hey hoped she would become a movie star, but she turned out to be a moving flash. At the awkward age of 15, Mary Decker, a spindly high school sophomore, has become an overnight sports sensation, breaking world records, delighting the public and astonishing her parents. John and Jackie Decker, who journeyed west from Plainfield, N.J., four years ago, wanted their eldest daughter to be a movie star. They signed up the then 11-year-old with a fly-by-night talent agency, paid $200 for a screen test and a set of glossy photographs and never heard another word about their daughter's movie career. Mary Decker's appeal, it seems, was not in her face but in her legs. Today, the shy, giggly gamine is the fastest female half-miler in the world. Th,us far this year she has broken three world track records. She has also visited the Kremlin, received a birthday gift from the President of Senegal, and appeared on television on To Tell tne Truth. In short, Mary is the hottest athletic teenybopper since gymnast Cathy Rigby tumbled onto the amateur competitive scene in 1971. Four years ago when Mary was 11, Obn DeNoon, who 'founded and coaches'the girls track club here called the Blue Angels, spotted her at a nearby Parks Department meet An invitation "Mary and a girlfriend entered the meet out of boredom," he recalls. "But Mary won, and I asked her to join the Blue Angels. At first I entered her in everything from the 100-yard dash to the mile, but finally I decided to make her a distance runner. ^"It wasn't until midwinter of this year that she came into her own," DeNoon continues. "In January, she set the world's women's indoor mark in the 1000-yard run. A month later she broke the indoor record for the half-mile. She bettered her time in this event the following week and at the same meet cracked the world's 800-meter mark. "By the time the 1976 Montreal Olympic games come around, Mary should be able to run the half-mile in one minute and 53 seconds. She should also develop in other longer distance events. I -expect her to peak with a 4- minute mile by the time she's 25, that is, if she keeps on running... and keeps her head." Mary, who lives here in a suburb of Disneyland with-her two younger sisters, Christine, 13, and Denise, 9, and her older brother John, 17, remains relatively unspoiled by the attention she has generated in the adult world. "I like to win because it feels better to be out in front of people than behind," she giggles. Â· -In addition to running, Mary also en- by Connecticut Walker Mary Decker setting half-mile record at February AAV meet "I like to win," she says, "because it feels better to be out in front of people." joys baking cookies, making her own clothes and telling ghost stones. She detests schoolwork--"I just can't stand sitting still and looking at words--but I do enjoy drivers' education and home economics classes. One-day, I'd like to become ah interior decorator." The effects of fame For Mary, success has already proved a mixed blessing. She is, after all, a "hot property," and this knowledge is quickly beginning to change her life and her family's. In fact, her growing fame has affected the people close to her more than it has Mary. In the last few months her parents divorced. Her father, John, a short soft- spoken machinist, plans to move out of the family home as soon as it is sold. Her mother, Jackie, a trim, auburn- haired cocktail waitress, has quit her job "in order to spend more time with my daughter and see that she's not taken advantage of." Mary and DeNoon, her coach of the last four years, have also parted--at her mother's insistence. Mary has a .new manager now--a tattooed, ex-Marine and former boxer named Robert Glazier. He supervises Mary's sprint practices and, along with her mother, handles her publicity. Jackie Decker and Bob Glazier are eager to get the most out of Mary's unexpected publicity, but they are both inexperienced and unknowing about the press and the "inside" world of big- time international .competition. Â· Because Mary is an amateur athlete and not the show-business ingenue her parents hoped she'd become, her success is not readily translatable into personal profit If she distinguishes herself in the next Olympic games, then, perhaps, she will cash in on her skill through product endorsements and advertising contracts. In the meantime, however, her crowd-drawing potential only enriches her Blue Angels track dub. Last year Glazier estimates that meet- promoters who wanted Mary to compete contributed $6000 to the dub's coffers--a windfall for the group of 85 young women who depend upon ddor- to-door candy sales, raffles and donations to raise the $18,000 a year they need for expenses. . While Mary is glad that, her success has benefited her teammates and helped her brother John get a job at the local sporting goods store, all she cares about is running. 'I love breaking records' "I love breaking records, the crowds, the trips, and the meets--everything except the workouts," she enthuses! "And you've got to work to be good." Mary is good, and the better she gets, the more independent she becomes. Says Glazier: "Mary decides whom she wants to run against Right now we're looking for a coach who knows how to train a world class athlete. Until we find one we'll let her continue to work out as best she can on her own." At 5'4* and 97 pounds, Mary trains harder than most young male athletes. Four to six days a week she runs interval distances totaling eight to JO miles a day. On weekends, she often runs with her boyfriend, 18-year-old miler Bill Graves, a senior at nearby Pacifica High School. . In addition to being tough and well- disciplined, Mary is endowed with what Amateur Athletic Union track coach Pete Petersons calls "a high running I.Q. Mary has perfect tactical sense," he explains. "Ifs something you're bom with, like perfect pitch. She knows exactly when in the last crucial 50 yards of a race to make her move." Back on the trade Mary is also endowed with determination. She has returned to running following two serious setbacks. In 1971 when she was 12, she suffered lacerations and a serious concussion after she and her father cracked up on his motorcycle. Six weeks later she was back in training. The next year she underwent an appendectomy, which was complicated by an allergic reaction to penicillin. She lost 15 pounds "and looked like a little old lady." But two weeks after she left the hospital Mary was pounding The track again. "What hurt most was getting back in shape," she says. While mature for her 15 years, Mary Decker has yet to become a seasoned world class competitor. Last March in Moscow, she was bumped by a Russian opponent during the anchor leg of a relay. In a fit of childish petulance, she threw her baton at the culprit, and both teams were disqualified. "Mary-is explosive both in temperament and in running style," remarks a teammate. "If she can cure the first and conserve the second, there will be no stopping her."
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