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A fleet US miler may still get a chance at her Olympic counterparts

Someday hollywood is going to decide to make a movie of Mary Teresa Decker, America's greatest female miler, and they won't be able to find anyone who can play the part.

The thing is, Mary Decker has so many emotions that explode in all the standard ways -- laughter, tears, happy sounds, smiles, whistles, giggles, that sometimes it's hard to tell whether she is 11 or 22 years old.

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Decker is a hungry runner with style, flair, and stamina, plus an appetite for practice that makes what is work for most people play to her, although she does not like to train alone. Yet running 70 to 80 miles a week to Mary is no different from a walk to a corner grocery store for most people.

At the recent Liberty Bell Track and Field Meet at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, Decker lowered her American 1,500-meter record to 4:00.87 while a crowd of more than 20,000 roared its approval.

"The reaction of that Philadelphia crowd literally carried me around the track," she told reporters. "It was a marvelous experience. In fact, this was like the track crowds you so often see in Europe, which is why so many American athletes like to compete there."

With nobody in the United States really able to push Decker that much, the setting, the timing, and the stiff competition of the Moscow Olympics would have been ideal for Mary and her ability to rise to the occasion. Actually there are six Soviet women, including world record holder Tatyana Kazankina (3:55.0), who have had better 1,500-meter times this year than Decker. But if Mary were to meet two or more of these women in a race, who knows what her time (or maybe theirs) would be?

What Decker is hoping is that she gets to race the gold, silver, and bronze 1 ,500-meter medalists from the Moscow Olympics in a special track meet in Budapest on Aug. 11. Presumably those winners will be Russians, which would make things even more interesting. But whoever they are, there should be a feeling of electricity in the air.

Decker was a child prodigy, winning the AAU 880-yard title at age 15 and showing an inner toughness that no coach or system can teach.

She got into running not so much by the front door as by a side entrance.

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"When I was 11 and living in Garden Grove, Calif., this girlfriend of mine found a flyer from the parks and recreation department that told about a track meet," Decker explained. "Mostly we read it out of boredom, and when we saw the words 'cross-country race,' we didn't even know what cross-country was.

"Anyway, we both went down and signed up and the run was fun. Even if I hadn't won, I would still have been captivated by the competition. But I knew I liked it, and right then it didn't seem like it was going to be that hard. After that all I wanted to do was run."

Part of Decker's growing-up period in track was having to survive a lot of well-meaning advice from people who basically knew what they were talking about, but had no business assuming it was automatically right for Mary's needs. And often it wasn't.

But there was always so much raw, natural talent there that Decker just kept getting better. She runs with a kind of fluid ease that suggests perhaps she isn't working that hard.

This is also a young woman who enjoys other sports -- like skiing; can throw a softball with authority; and has overcome numerous injuries.

The place to watch Decker compete is outdoors, under a clear blus sky, and against competition that is worthy of her talent.

The world's television cameramen, had Mary been able to go to Moscow, would have frozen her style on instant replay the way some food-processing companies freeze spinach.

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