After Saturday’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix meet, I had an idea for a blog post comparing the young Mary Cain to the young Mary Decker. Cain is a track prodigy, running world-class times at 17 and showing a mental toughness and ability to rise to the occasion that makes her a celebrity in a sport that doesn’t have many. Back in the early 1970s, Decker was even more of a prodigy, at age 14 already the owner of a world indoor record and a victory in the US vs. USSR meet. One of the top 800 runners in the U.S., she might have gone to the 1972 Olympics in Munich except she didn’t meet the age requirement.
Since Mary Decker (later Mary Slaney) would go on to become perhaps the most accomplished American middle distance runner in history (at one time, she owned every American track record from 880 yards to 10,000m), I thought it would be interesting to compare the progress of “the two Marys” — what times they were running for 800m, 1500m, mile, etc. at different ages.
So I started reading articles about Decker, and I soon realized that there was no way to compare the two athletes in the way I had imagined. At 17, Mary Cain is healthy and improving, and at the same age Mary Decker was injured and, essentially, out of the sport. As far as I know, Cain has never had a major injury, never had surgery, never been in a cast, never wondered if she would ever run pain-free again. At the same age, Decker had experienced all of those things.
In early 1976, the 17-year-old Decker was “practically a cripple” (Kenny Moore’s words, in a 1978 article in Sports Illustrated). She was experiencing severe pain in her shins almost every time she tried to train. Later that year she would be diagnosed as having suffered multiple stress fractures that had not healed properly.
It’s really hard to go back in time and think about Mary Decker as a senior in high school, her career on hold, perhaps over for good. In a remarkable passage from the 1978 article, Moore quotes Francie Larrieu on Decker’s perseverance: “I don’t know if I could have hung on as long as she did. I would have given up.” It’s startling to realize she’s talking about someone who hadn’t yet reached her 20th birthday. In fact, Decker would continue competing at the national level for nearly 20 more years, would win double gold at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki, would take the most famous mid-race fall in history, and would set all those records.
It’s impossible to see what lies ahead for Cain. Obviously, at this point her trajectory is completely different, as are her motivations and goals. It’s tempting to predict how many records she’ll set, how many championships she’ll win, but that seems somehow beside the point. The fact that she has so far survived the training, the racing, and the scrutiny that comes with being a prodigy seems like a tremendous achievement in its own right, especially when compared with the teen career of America’s other great female distance prodigy.