While most 17-year-olds are preparing for college, as a high school senior Mary Cain was shattering records. And not just high school records.
Cain was the youngest American track and field athlete to make a World Championship team that year and in 2013, she signed with Nike’s Oregon Project, considered the best track club in the country and coach by Roberto Salazar, a former American record holder and middle-distance and marathon star.
“When I was 16, I got a call from Salazar,” she said in a video interview with the New York Times. “He told me I was the most talented athlete he had 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 dream come true.”
With such a promising future and a seemingly perfect situation, what could possibly go wrong?
A lot, as it turned out, according to the New York Times report.
“I joined Nike because I wanted to be the greatest female athlete ever,” Cain said in the video interview. “Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”
Despite her age, she said that she was forced to meet nearly impossible athletic standards. She was put into a development timeline, one designed for men. After frustrating months of dieting under the direction of an all-male coaching staff, she found herself facing a difficult reality: By continuing to train in this manner for the best team in the world, she could end up developing osteoporosis or infertility.
“They were a bunch of people who were Alberto’s friends,” she said of the Oregon Project staff. “When I went to anybody for help, they would tell me the same thing. Listen to Alberto.”
Cain said she was told constantly that she needed to lose weight. There wasn’t a psychologist or a nutritionist. She said Salazar publicly shamed her if she didn’t maintain her weight of 114 pounds.
“He wanted to give me birth control pills and diuretics to lose weight,” she said, “the latter of which isn’t allowed in track and field.”
Cain was in a bad place, she said, as things took a turn for the worse.
“I ran terrible during this time,” she said. “It reached a point where I was at the starting line and I had lost the race before it started. In my head, all I was thinking of wasn’t the time I was trying to hit, but the number on the scale I saw earlier in the day.”
As it continued, she reached a low point in her life and found no support.
“I felt so scared, so alone and trapped,” she said. “I started to have suicidal thoughts. I started to cut myself. Some people saw me cut myself. And nobody really did anything or said anything.”
Following a race, Salazar yelled at Cain in front of other runners, accusing her of gaining five pounds before the race. That night, she told Salazar a team psychologist that she had been cutting herself.
“They pretty much told me that they just wanted to go to bed,” she said. “I think for me, that was my kick in the head, where I was like ‘this system is sick’. When I told my parents, they were horrified. They bought me the first plane ride home and said to get the hell out of there. I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics anymore, I was trying to survive.”
During her time in the Oregon Project, Cain didn’t have her menstrual period for three years. She suffered five broken bones.
At the end of September, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency handed Salazar a four-year suspension for doping violations and Nike said closing the Oregon Project is part of its commitment to “put the athlete and their needs at the front of all of our decisions.” The shoe giant claims that it also is taking steps to protect athletes from the burden of association with Salazar.
During his tenure, Salazar had coached some of the world’s top distance runners. In an email to the New York Times, Salazar denied the accusations that were made against him by Cain.
Cain, however, is not the only one who has spoken out against him.
Kara Goucher, who was an Olympic distance runner in the Oregon Project left in 2011. She said that she experienced a similar environment.
“When you’re training in a program like this, you’re constantly reminded how lucky you are to be there, how anyone would want to be there, and it’s this weird feeling of, ‘Well, then, I can’t leave it. Who am I without it?’” she told the Times. “When someone proposes something you don’t want to do, whether it’s weight loss or drugs, you wonder, ‘Is this what it takes? Maybe it is, and I don’t want to have regrets.’ Your careers are so short. You are desperate. You want to capitalize on your career, but you’re not sure at what cost.”
Cain and Goucher each said they would try and eat in private sometimes, making sure their coaches wouldn’t see.
“America loves a good child-prodigy story, and business is ready and waiting to exploit that story, especially when it comes to girls,” Lauren Fleshman, who ran for Nike until 2012, told the Times. “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.”
Cain hopes that her story will put Nike under a microscope and make others aware of the problems young girls can encounter as athletes.
“I got caught in a system, designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls,” Cain said. “Rather than force young girls to fend for themselves, we have to protect them.”
Blake Harris a senior sports journalism student at Arizona State University
Note: The Global Sport Institute is supported by a combination of institutional ASU funding and a significant philanthropic gift from Adidas. GlobalSport Matters is a publication in partnership between the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Global Sport Institute.