How Nike ruined America’s fastest girl
Mary Cain was the fastest girl in America.
A teen prodigy that broke countless national records, including becoming the youngest athlete from the United States to compete at a world championships when she made the final of the 1500m in Moscow in 2013.
She dreamt of becoming the greatest female athlete in history and to that end, decided to forego a college athletics career and join the Nike Oregon Project - a collection of the fastest runners in the world training full-time at the company's headquarters under famed coach Alberto Salazar.
"He was the world's most famous track coach and he told me I was the most talented athlete he'd ever seen," Mary said. "It was a dream come true."
A Sports Illustrated feature published in 2013 summed up the innocent feelings of Mary and her parents as she embarked on a running career many expected to peak on the top of an Olympic podium.
"As long as she comes off the track smiling," her Dad, Charlie told the magazine. "That's all we care about."
"I'm not one of those people who is scared, like, Ooooh, I'm going to burn out," Mary added. "I'm surrounded by people who know what they're doing."
Today, Mary and the New York Times released an explosive seven-minute video that's rocked athletics.
"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," says Mary Cain. https://t.co/CzGsVRQD0m pic.twitter.com/XymyuD5dQw— New York Times Opinion (@nytopinion) November 7, 2019
Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project have already been blown up. Last month the company shuttered the program after the 61-year-old mentor was banned from athletics for four years for doping offences.
But the abuse Mary alleges she suffered at his hands go much further than the charges levelled at Salazar by the World Anti-Doping Authority.
In the video, she details a pattern of emotional and physical abuse that almost had fatal consequences.
Mary said after she moved to Oregon an all-male coaching team at Nike quickly identified "in order for me to get better I had to get thinner and thinner and thinner".
"Alberto was constantly trying to get me to lose weight," she said. "He created an arbitrary number of 114 pounds (51.7kg) and he would usually weigh me in front of my teammates and publicly shame me if I wasn't hitting weight."
Mary said she began running terribly and, because she was being asked to push herself beyond what she was capable of, developed RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport).
She says it resulted in her not having a period for three years and, because of the lack of oestrogen which impacted her bone strength, saw her break five different bones.
But for years no one knew her reality. The New York Times magazine published a piece in 2015 trumpeting Mary's talent and how Salazar was nurturing it.
"We weren't doing any of that," she says now. "I felt so scared and 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 nobody really did anything or said anything."
The reporter who wrote the 2015 piece, Elizabeth Weil, today apologised to Cain in the wake of her revelations.
"I've thought a lot about the Mary Cain story I wrote over the years because in hindsight I got it so wrong," wrote Weil, in a Twitter thread.
"I'm so sorry, Mary Cain, for not seeing your pain and for my part in adding to it. I'm sure the story felt horrible and disorienting at the time. Bravo on speaking out."
The running community was also in shock.
Australia's three-time Olympic marathoner Lee Troop described Mary's story as "absolutely terrible".
"To all of you that were in the inner sanctum of NOP and turned a blind eye to this abuse, screw you!" Troop tweeted. "To all of you who continue to defend Salazar, a double screw you!! As a father, listening to this, it's heartbreaking."
Kara Goucher, who was one of the whistleblowers in the case which brought down Salazar, tweeted her support. "I am so proud of Mary Cain for telling her powerful story of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse at the Nike Oregon Project," Goucher wrote. "This took so much bravery. We have to stop the abuse of athletes, specifically female.
For the people claiming Mary should have known better, not taken Nike $ and is not a victim: she was a child, her parents were called by the most powerful coach in T & F and lied to. She is a victim and your comments prove why this abusuve culture is able to continue.— Kara Goucher (@karagoucher) November 7, 2019
Former US 5000m champion Lauren Freshman tweeted: What happened to Mary Cain was worse than I feared. This story is familiar to thousands of girls and young women in sports. It has to STOP. Thank you for your bravery Mary."
Shalane Flanagan, who ran with Nike Bowerman Track Club in Oregon, tweeted: "I had no idea it was this bad. I'm so sorry Mary Cain that I never reached out to you when I saw you struggling. I made excuses to myself as to why I should mind my own business. We let you down. I will never turn my head again."
The New York Times says Salazar denied many of Mary's claims in an email and said "he had supported her health and welfare".
Nike is yet to respond, but Mary has called on the sportswear giant to look deeper than the problems highlighted by WADA and to begin putting more women in power.
"Young girls bodies are being ruined by an emotionally and physically abusive system," she said. "Rather than force young girls to fend for themselves, we have to protect them."