Old Coach wrote:
How to define "greatest"? Has there ever been a high school girl who beat better competition than 16 year old Debbie Heald? In the 1972 indoor US - USSR meet she beat 5-time world XC champ Doris Brown and Russians Tamira Pangelova who had won the European championship the week before and Ludmila Bragina who had finished second and would win the Olympic 1500 five months later. Debbie's 4:38.5 mile was the fastest ever run indoors and stood as the US high school record for 41 years. No high school girl has ever stepped up like that.
Debbie Heald was terrific, and was horribly overlooked until coverage of Mary Cain's performances brought Heald back into the spotlight a bit, but I'm pretty confident that I'd give the edge to Mary Decker based on her overall record, including world and American records, world and American rankings by Track & Field News, competitive results in high-level races, and finishing times at distances from 800 meters to the mile in 1973-74 (almost all of which were achieved before she turned 16). Comparisons with more recent runners obviously present challenges for a number of reasons, including the dearth of high-school competition for girls and (more generally) longer races for women before 1975, but one would probably need to apply a rather narrow and ahistoric conception of "greatest" to bring some of the other names into the discussion. (I usually avoid these debates about "GOATs" and "greatest," but when this subject came up a few years ago during Mary Cain's high school career, I was frankly shocked by how little some people knew about Mary Decker's early years. She really was one of the sport's biggest international stars when she was just fourteen years old.)