Thanks to Facebook, I heard yesterday that ESPN was airing a documentary on Mary Decker, an American middle distance runner known for a fall during the 1984 Olympics that crushed her dream of Olympic gold. I watched that documentary tonight for the first time. I say “for the first time” because I’m absolutely sure I’ll be watching it again. I’ll watch it when I’m feeling bummed about something. I’ll watch it before I head out to a big race. I’ll watch it any time someone comes over who gives even a little damn about running, sports, achievement, having goals or wanting to be a better person. The story offers so much.
She was a running prodigy, winning races and earning recognition at age 12. At one point, she held every U.S. record from the 800 meter to the 10,000 meter distances. Plus, she held the world record in the mile. She didn’t get to compete in the 1972 Olympics because she was only 13 when the Olympic Trials happened. She didn’t compete in the 1976 Olympics because she was plagued with injuries. She didn’t compete in the 1980 Olympics because the United States boycotted the event. Then in 1984, she fell. She had only three laps left in her only Olympic race, and she fell. She injured her hip and was carried off the track by the man who would become her husband. After awful media coverage over her attitude surrounding her fall and her tears after the race, she went from being called “America’s Sweetheart” to being “America’s Crybaby.” She took some time off to heal and came back in 1985 to have her very best season. She continued to race and win and competed again at the 1988 Olympics at the age of 37. Still the medal eluded her.
To this day, she remains the United States record holder for the 1500 meter, 3000 meter and mile events. According to this film, the times she posted then would put her on the Olympic team now. She was that good. But she never won Olympic gold or any Olympic medal. Ever.
The film talks about her single-minded focus on being the best, about her obsessive need for approval as a child, and about her “delicate constitution” as an adult. It talks about her incredible ability to train and compete through pain. Those things struck me. I admire her commitment and think I understand something about needing approval and drawing validation from performance. What struck me more was that she came back from that fall and raced again, even at the Olympic level. What struck me most is that she continues to run – and continues to love running – today.
Looking back on her career, she says, “The easiest thing in the world to do is to win. It’s simple. You win. You are happy. Life is wonderful. It’s a much greater skill to learn how to deal with the disappoint and the challenges and the losses.”
Wanting to learn about dealing with disappointment is sort of like wanting to be patient. In my church, we used to joke that you should never pray for patience because there’s only one way to get it and that way is never fun. Similarly, I want to learn to deal with disappointment without ever having to actually experience it. But we all experience it sometimes. I might be experiencing disappointment today. You might experience it tomorrow. We all face it at some point. That’s okay. What matters is how we respond.
I’d like to respond as Mary Decker did, not immediately after her race, but in the months and years later when she built her body, her spirit and her reputation back up. (I did some more reading on her and learned that she was later involved in a doping scandal, but that wasn’t part of this film, and from what I can gather, it wasn’t something actually proven as to her.) Like Mary Decker, I’d like to get myself back together after disappointment, get back to doing what I love, and do it better than anyone else.
Oh, and the guy who carried her off the track and later became her husband? They’re still together. He apparently didn’t judge her for the behavior that led to her condemnation in the press. He just stuck with her and continues to do so today. I’d say that kind of love and commitment is better than any medal a girl could win.
Work incredibly hard doing something I love with someone I love and who loves me forever by my side? Yes, please. I want to be like Mary Decker.