The New York Times

The New York Times 7 Nov 2019

I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike


Mary Cain's male coaches were convinced she had to get "thinner, and thinner, and thinner." Then her body started breaking down.

At 17, Mary Cain was already a record-breaking phenom: the fastest girl in a generation, and the youngest American runner to turn professional. In 2013, she was signed by the best track team in the world, Nike's Oregon Project, run by its star coach Alberto Salazar.

Then everything collapsed. Her fall was just as spectacular as her rise, and she shares that story for the first time in the Video Op-Ed above.

Instead of becoming a symbol of girls' unlimited potential in sports, Cain became yet another standout young athlete who got beaten down by a win-at-all-costs culture. Girls like Cain become damaged goods and fade away. We rarely hear what happened to them. We move on.

The problem is so widespread it affected the only other female athlete featured in the last Nike video ad Cain appeared in, the figure skater Gracie Gold. When the ad came out in 2014, like Cain, Gold was a prodigy considered talented enough to win a gold medal at the next Olympics. And, like Cain, Gold got caught in a system where she was compelled to become thinner and thinner. She developed disordered eating to the point of imagining her own death.

"America loves a good child prodigy story, and business is ready and waiting to exploit that story, especially when it comes to girls," said Lauren Fleshman, who ran for Nike until 2012. "When you have these kinds of good girls, girls who are good at following directions to the point of excelling, you'll find a system that's happy to take them. And it's rife with abuse."

We don't typically hear from the casualties of these systems — the girls who tried to make their way in this system until their bodies broke down and they left the sport. It's easy to focus on bright new stars, while forgetting about those who disappeared. We fetishize these athletes, but we don't protect them. If they fail to pull off what we expect them to, we abandon them.

But Mary Cain's story isn't over. By speaking out, she's making sure of that.

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… show captions ↓
I was the fastest girl in America.
“Mary Cain!”
“There are women here almost twice her age”
“being left in her wake.“
I set many national records.
And I was a straight-A student.
“C’mon, Mary Cain!”
When I was 16, I got a call from Alberto Salazar at Nike.
He was the world’s most famous track coach and he told me
I was the most talented athlete he’d ever seen.
During my freshman year in college, I moved out to train
with him and his team full time
at Nike world headquarters.
It was a team of the fastest athletes in the world.
And it was a dream come true.
I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete, ever.
Instead, I was emotionally and physically
abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.
This is what happened to me.
When I first arrived, an all-male Nike staff
became convinced that in order
for me to get better,
I had to become thinner, and thinner, and thinner.
This Nike team was the top running program
in the country.
And yet we had no certified sports psychologist.
There was no certified nutritionist.
It was really just a bunch of people
who were Alberto’s friends.
So when I went to anybody for help,
they would always just tell me the same thing.
And that was to listen to Alberto.
Alberto was constantly trying to get me to lose weight.
He created an arbitrary number of 114 pounds,
and he would usually weigh me in front of my teammates
and publicly shame me if I wasn’t hitting weight.
He wanted to give me birth control pills
and diuretics to lose weight—
the latter of which isn’t allowed in track and field.
I ran terrible during this time.
It reached a point where I was on the starting line
and I’d lost the race before I started, because in my head
all I was thinking of was not the time I was trying to hit
but the number on the scale I saw earlier that day.
It would be naïve to not acknowledge the fact
that weight is important in sports.
Like boxers need to maintain a certain weight, or you know
everybody always ends up citing
the math about how the thinner you are,
the faster you’re going to run because you
have to carry less weight.
But here’s a biology lesson I learned the hard way.
When young women are forced to push themselves beyond what
they’re capable at their given age,
they’re at risk for developing RED–S.
Suddenly, you realize you’ve lost your period for a couple months.
And then a couple months becomes a couple years.
And in my case, it was a total of three.
And if you’re not getting your period,
you’re not going to be able to have
the necessary levels of estrogen
to maintain strong bone health.
And in my case, I broke five different bones.
The New York Times Magazine published
a story about how Alberto was training me and nurturing
my talent.
We weren’t doing any of that.
I felt so scared.
I felt so alone.
And I felt so trapped. And I started
to have suicidal thoughts.
I started to cut myself.
Some people saw me cutting myself
and ... sorry.
Nobody really did anything or said anything.
So in 2015, I ran this race,
and I didn’t run super well.
And afterwards, there was a thunderstorm
going on. Half the track was under one tent.
Alberto yelled at me in front of everybody
else at the meet, and he told me
that I’d clearly gained five pounds before the race.
It was also that night that I told Alberto and our sports psych
that I was cutting myself.
And they pretty much told me they just wanted to go to bed.
And I think for me, that was my kick in the head where
I was like, “This system is sick.”
I think even for my parents in certain ways,
once I finally vocalized to them,
I mean, they were horrified.
They bought me the first plane ride home.
And they were like, ”Get on that flight.
Get the hell out of there.”
I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics anymore.
I was just trying to survive.
So I made the painful choice
and I quit the team.
“After a multiyear investigation,
the U.S. anti-doping agency has banned
Alberto Salazar from the sport for four years.”
“Nike will shut down the Oregon project.”
“Nike C.E.O. Mark Parker stepping down
from the company in January of 2020.”
Those reforms are mostly a direct result
of the doping scandal.
They’re not acknowledging the fact
that there is a systemic crisis in women’s sports
and at Nike, in which young girls’ bodies are
being ruined by an emotionally and physically abusive system.
That’s what needs to change, and here’s how we can do it.
First, Nike needs to change.
In track and field, Nike is all powerful.
They control the top coaches, athletes, races,
even the governing body.
You can’t just fire a coach and eliminate a program
and pretend the problem is solved.
My worry is that Nike is merely
going to rebrand the old program
and put Alberto’s old assistant coaches in charge.
Secondly, we need more women in power.
Part of me wonders if I had worked
with more female psychologists, nutritionists and even coaches
where I’d be today.
I got caught in a system designed by and for men,
which destroys the bodies of young girls.
Rather than force young girls to fend for themselves,
we have to protect them.
I genuinely do have hope for the sport.
And I plan to be running for many years to come.
And so part of the reason I’m doing this now
is I want to end this chapter
and I want to start a new one.

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