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

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2019

Mary Cain was on her way — and quickly. As detailed in a 2015 NY Times piece by Elizabeth Weil, Cain ran a mile in 5:03 as a 7th grader and by the time she was a high school sophomore, ran the 1,500 meters in 4:11.01. Her high school track coach didn’t know how to coach her properly, so when Nike called, she joined a legendary coach training a team of fellow track stars to see how far she could go. And according to Cain, that’s when everything fell apart.

A big part of this problem is that women and girls are being forced to meet athletic standards that are based on how men and boys develop. If you try to make a girl fit a boy’s development timeline, her body is at risk of breaking down. That is what happened to Cain.

After months of dieting and frustration, Cain found herself choosing between training with the best team in the world, or potentially developing osteoporosis or even infertility. She lost her period for three years and broke five bones. She went from being a once-in-a-generation Olympic hopeful to having suicidal thoughts.

This May, at the age of 23, Cain ran competitively for the first time in 2.5 years and won a four-mile race in NYC.

Update: Shannon Palus writing at Slate about Cain’s recent revelations:

Cain’s story might be superlatively horrifying, and her accusations go well beyond simple misunderstanding of female biology. (They include her coaches essentially ignoring her admission that she was depressed and cutting herself. The Oregon Project was shut down in October, after Salazar was banned from coaching for doping violations.) But the treatment of her weight, and the lack of understanding of how extreme workouts were affecting her body, is part of a much broader problem, and not just one that affects women with large brand partnerships. Many, if not most, female runners, from elite athletes to those training for their first 5Ks, will suffer at some point because of a lack of recognition of their physical needs, and how their bodies differ from men’s.

Update: In a Sports Illustrated article published today, eight other athletes corroborate Cain’s allegations of abuse.

Amid the fallout from Cain’s comments, Sports Illustrated contacted nine former Nike Oregon Project members, including Cain, about the culture under Salazar, and their accounts, extending back to 2008, validate her claims and paint a picture of a toxic culture where female athletes’ bodies were fair game to be demeaned publicly. Multiple authority figures appeared to lack certifications. Former team members now describe it, in retrospect, as “a cult.” Now leaders from the anti-doping world and even Salazar’s de facto successor as coach are calling for a third-party investigation of The Oregon Project.

I was talking with a friend about Cain’s story and how challenging the coach/athlete dynamic is. The nature of coaching is to help athletes to achieve things they cannot accomplish on their own, to push them past what they thought was their best. Pushing boundaries implies the need to be vulnerable, to embrace the unknown, to do things that you may not understand or want to do, and to trust your coach to have you do the correct uncomfortable & seemingly impossible things that will help you excel and not the wrong uncomfortable & seemingly impossible things that will damage your body and mind. From the outside or as an athlete in the midst of training, it can be tough to tell which is which. To have that trust betrayed must be devastating.