She is the only American runner, male or female, to hold all the American records for 800 meters through 10,000 meters at the same time. In Mary Slaney’s amazing career she set 36 national records and 17 world records. For the full interview, go to www.competitorradio.com.
Bob Babbitt: So Mary, let’s go back a little bit – you got into running so young. Were your parents into running? What got you into running so early?
Mary Slaney: It was completely accidental. I was totally into sports – I was a bit of a tomboy growing up. I tried everything: softball, volleyball and basketball. With Sue, my best friend at the time in sixth grade, there was always an activity. And the activity could be anything from a craft project to some sort of a sports-related event. Anyways, we went out to a cross-country race that was at the Park and Recreations facility one weekend and we didn’t know what cross-country was. We had no idea it was running. We both entered; she dropped out, I won. It was three-quarters of a mile and I really enjoyed it. And there was a coach there recruiting for a girl’s track club in Long Beach, the Long Beach Comets, and so that’s sort of how it all started.
BB: So you became a Comet.
MS: I became a Long Beach Comet, and to start with, the coach said I’d need to come work out three times a week. Well, three times a week to me wasn’t enough.
BB: I’m assuming you had success right away.
MS: I did. I was successful, it was really fun and it felt completely natural to me, unlike any of the other sports I tried along the way – and I tried a lot of things. I had fun playing other sports, it’s just that running was easy, it felt comfortable and I was successful early on, so, you know… success usually spurs on more success.
BB: What did your parents think of the running?
MS: I think early on they thought it was like Girl Scouts or after-school softball or whatever, but by the time I was 14 I had made a U.S. team. I think at that point they realized this wasn’t going to be just a phase.
BB: Especially when you’re going to U.S.-Soviet dual meets overseas, that’s a little different when you’re heading off to Minsk to race against the Russians. At 14 years old.
MS: I remember making my first team and then the people from the Amateur Athletic Union (which is U.S.A. Track and Field now) having meetings with my mother because my mother didn’t want me to go and there was a big deal about if you were under 18 you had to have specific chaperones – and I was by far the youngest on the team. I was the only one that had a curfew at night. I think the next-youngest person on the team was 19 and it was bizarre. It was like I had a lot of older brothers and sisters.
BB: What was your favorite European venue? Was it Oslo – which of the meets did you like the most?
MS: Oh my god that’s a hard one. I think my favorite is Zurich. Just because the night was always perfect and the weather was always perfect and the stadium was always full. You had everybody that was anybody in track and field there in Zurich. However, I do have to go back to Helsinki in 1983.
BB: Oh, because you won two world titles – the 1500 and 3000. That wasn’t a bad meet.
MS: I think that if I had to choose one event or one arena that’s my favorite, it would have to be Helsinki. That was something special because I hadn’t competed in any Olympics yet, not that my Olympic career was very stunning, but I had always run well in the U.S. and I’d run well in Europe against Europeans, but I’d never raced in a big event. The word around was that, ‘Well, she can run well and run fast times by herself, but she can’t race.’ And so I just thought if I was going to lose they would have to run hard to beat me. But I wasn’t going to just give it to the Russians.
BB: What a lot of people don’t realize is that the first time women could compete in the Olympics in the 1500 wasn’t until 1972; the 10,000 wasn’t until 1988; and the 5000 wasn’t until 1996, and the 3000 and marathon were in 1984. There weren’t a lot of Olympic options for women, even though I know you were injured in 1976 and in 1980 we didn’t go. Your only options then were 800 or 1500. Even though you had such great range and you were dominant from the 1500 all through 10,000 meters, the opportunities at the Olympics were missing.
MS: I remember in 1983, we as women athletes were trying to get the marathon added to the Olympic schedule for 1984. Through the years, we had to prove that we weren’t going to disintegrate, fall apart or melt if we tried to run a marathon.
BB: When I look back again at what you accomplished in 1974: three world records, and you were 16 years old. That’s a lot of success for someone so young. Were you allowed to receive prize money and allowed to be under contract to sponsors back then?
MS: Oh, no. You weren’t allowed to get paid for anything. Back then, I didn’t receive any money for anything. In the 1980s we started getting some money, but it was controlled by the Federation.
BB: I remember talking to Rod Dixon and some of the other guys, and they would go to these track meets in Europe and people would be lined up in the hallway to get their money. And they would go to the American guys and say, ‘Hey are you going to come get your money?’ And they would say, ‘What money?’
MS: Yeah. No kidding, I had no clue. Everything was under the table. There were athletes by the end of the season walking around with tens of thousands of dollars in cash with them.
BB: Athletes whom you were beating.
BB: If you look at 1982, you set six world records ranging from the mile to the 10,000. Then in 1983 you won the 1500 and 3000 in Helsinki, the Sullivan Award, Sports Illustrated‘s Sports Person of the Year. If someone had two years like that now – oh my god. It would be multi-million dollar bonuses. It would be basically what Michael Phelps just did.
MS: Yeah, well it would be up there. But I think I have to look at it from a different perspective. I think I helped open doors and prove that women should be respected athletes as well as men. And it’s – I remember going to meets all through my career and through the late 1970s and 1980s, the men’s events were always spotlighted, bigger, better – and it was almost as if we were…
BB: Second-class citizens?
MS: Well, like we were the opening act.
BB: You were the warm-up band.
MS: Yeah. And my mental goal was, it didn’t matter whom I was racing against or not racing against, I always wanted to be better within myself. I ran against my own times quite frequently in those countries, because I wanted to run faster and be better each time. I also thought that we would get recognized more as women if we were running faster and breaking more records. If we ran slow… you know, it was kind of like we wouldn’t even get a mention.
BB: You wanted to put on a show.
MS: I didn’t want to go to an event and just go through the motions, and I’ve been criticized frequently over the years when I was racing. Why do you go out and run hard when there is no one challenging you? The reason is because I want to make a mark on the sport and I want it to be exciting for people.
BB: Now how many surgeries have you had Mary.
MS: Oh god, over 30. Most of it has been below the knee: calf, Achilles, I ruptured my tendon and had to have it totally reconstructed. What stopped me from training hard enough to compete any longer is I had a bad surgery about 10 years ago. The surgery was meant to take the stress off my Achilles tendon… the tendons were all re-routed in my toes – but now I have no flexion in my toes so I have no push-off. Without the push-off there is absolutely no firing of the muscles. Now I am trying to find someone to reverse that, because, I can go out and jog right now, but I can’t run, and that’s the hardest thing for me. I turned 50 this last year…
BB: And you want to race.
MS: Yeah, I want to race; I want to train and race. I want it to be, well, I could never see myself not running, not ever. Now I have to be happy jogging. I’m still trying to find someone that can help me figure out a solution to my issue.
BB: You are someone who needs to be going fast. Going slow must be so tough for you.
MS: Oh my god.
BB: That’s the way you always ran. You ran hard all the time.
MS: Yeah, even in my training runs. I just love running; when people talk to you they don’t quite understand that jogging is not quite the same.
BB: Looking back at another area where you were so great was The Millrose Games. Your first win came when you were 15 and your last win at 38. You’re a six-time champion there.
MS: Oh, I loved indoor track. You’re so close to the crowd – it normally is a very knowledgeable crowd – people that go to an indoor meet in winter months, they know what they are watching, and it was just a different feeling than running on a track outside. The climate was always controlled, you didn’t have to worry if it was going to be windy or raining or if it was 40 degrees or 100 degrees; but the coolest thing was that the crowd was so close and the indoor arenas were normally very full.
BB: Some of your favorite Millrose memories?
MS: I think it was 1980 and I broke the world record in the 1500 indoors. I went through the first quarter, I can’t remember the time but it was faster than the men had gone through the first quarter. After the first quarter-mile of the race, the entire stadium was on their feet for the rest of the race. And it was louder than anything I have ever heard. It was just amazing and everybody in that place knew what was going on.
BB: Did you ever run a marathon?
MS: The one and only marathon I got to run was the Palos Verdes Marathon. I was 12. I believe it was 1970. I won the women’s race, but there were only 300 people in the race. It’s not what marathons are today. I had run only 12 miles in training before I went to the race that weekend. I ran 3:09:27. I don’t remember numbers normally, but I remember that one.
BB: When you were training during your heyday, what type of mileage were you running every week?
MS: There were times that I was running 70 to 80 miles a week and I’d be hurt within three weeks of that. I was not a high-mileage athlete. I ran my best races, my best times and stayed healthiest when I stayed around 50 to 60 miles a week. I think part of that is because I was very intense with my training. I rarely ran anything slower than a six-minute pace in training runs.
BB: Really, everything was six minutes or better?
MS: Yeah, I just loved running fast. I got a lot of grief for it from my coaches and from my husband Richard because they felt that I ran too hard too often, that I was leaving a lot of races in training. Part of it was I just loved running – it felt good.
BB: It didn’t feel as good to run slower.
MS: No, and that’s part of my problem now when I go out and jog.
BB: Who were you coached by?
MS: When I first came to Oregon, Dick Brown was with Athletics West and he coached me through 1984. I don’t know if you want to say ‘most successful,’ but my best year result-wise came when I was being coached by Luis de Oliveira. I felt the strongest and fastest when I worked with Luis – I felt like I could handle anything that year. In fact, I ran all of my fastest times except for the 1500 with him. I think I was off of it by a tenth or so, but I ran 1:56:09 in the 800 and a couple of days later I broke the world record in the mile in Zurich. What I loved about Luis’ coaching was I got to run fast in training. You would get these workouts where you actually got to run fast.
BB: And so he probably kept your mileage lower.
MS: Another advantage to Luis’ training was that he came from Brazil, and soccer was a big sport there. We were doing exercises that soccer players do – so you get a lot of overall conditioning, which I had never gotten before. 1985 was just a really, really strong year for me. I had my best season, result-wise, ever. I think the training that I did with Luis was just perfect.
BB: It’s interesting, especially when you talk about how you love to train hard. You seem like the type of person who is not going to half-ass it. If it’s an indoor meet and you’re there, you’re there to go hard and you’re not tapering for this one and tapering for that one, every time you go toe-to-line you’re going hard. So to think about trying to build up to something that’s a full four years away – that seems very, very difficult.
MS: Well, that’s true. My Olympic results were not very stunning. I have no excuse, it just wasn’t my day on any of those days. Over the years people asked me if I feel incomplete athletically or as an athlete because of the Olympics and not being successful and yes, it would be wonderful to have performed well at the Olympics. However, I don’t feel any less successful athletically because I didn’t. I feel like I have had a very full athletic career in spite of not doing well at the Olympics. You have to put it in perspective and realize that it is once every four years and now there are so many other events where everyone is there. In 1983, at the World Championships, it was actually a truer competition for track and field because everybody was there; there were no boycotts.
BB: So you’re happy with your career.
MS: I feel good about my career; I just don’t feel good about the fact that I can’t go out and run now. That’s just the way it is. I don’t like to look back and look at what I’ve done. I like to look forward at what I can do and should do and want to do. I think that’s how most successful athletes are – they’re never really quite satisfied with yesterday or even today – you want to be better tomorrow, and that’s how it has driven me. I still feel that I never really reached my potential as an athlete. My seasons were always cut short by injuries and it’s frustrating because I always felt like there was more there to give, or that I could get more from myself.
BB: You ran hard when you were healthy enough to do it, and sometimes you just couldn’t.
MS: I always thought I don’t know if I’m going to be injured tomorrow or next year, so if I get to run today, I’m going to run the way I feel. I always did, no matter what anybody said.