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

Mary Cain, 23, has finally told her story. The onetime Olympic hopeful said that her body broke down after joining Nike’s Oregon Project in 2013, run by its star coach Alberto Salazar. Cain was the youngest track athlete to ever make a world championship team at 17-years-old. She stated that she suffered from physical and emotional abuse as the elite track program only focused on her weight. She claims she was shamed in front of her peers by team coaches if her weight went above 114 pounds.

This was a long time coming. For years, I felt broken and alone – I waited, yet no one reach(ed) out to help.

Now I am ok. But the system isn’t. And I can’t stay silent.

Mary Cain’s post to Twitter

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

Mary Cain alongside former head coach Alberto Salazar (Source: Erin Strout)

Cain got beaten down by a win-at-all-costs culture. After months of dieting and frustration, she found herself choosing between training with the best team in the world, or potentially developing osteoporosis or even infertility. Cain broke five bones and lost her period for three years. Everything was collapsing around her. She went from potentially making the Olympics to having suicidal thoughts.

These symptoms are part of a syndrome knows as the “female athlete triad”, affecting as many as 60% of female athletes. This energy deficiency syndrome can be career ending and life threatening to athletes at all levels. It occurs when athletes don’t eat enough to fuel their exercise, causing a calorie deficit that leads to serious consequences. Research shows that women are at greater risk of stress fractures, in part because of the female athlete triad.

“You don’t need to be super skinny to run fast. You need to be strong. You need to be healthy.”

Natasha Wodak, a Canadian Olympian and national record holder for the 10,000 meters

Nike has since released a statement noting that the company had not been aware of the allegations, but takes them “extremely seriously” and will launch an immediate investigation. The company is closing its Oregon Project track and field program following Alberto Salazar’s four-year ban.

Mary Cain telling her story led to an outpouring of stories and eyewitness accounts from other athletes. People should never have to fear coming forward. I hope this Nike investigation focuses on the culture that created Alberto. Nike has the chance to make a change and protect its athletes going forward.


Featured image: Mary Cain (Source: Video by Lindsay Crouse and Alexander Stockton)

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