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Former Nike Oregon Project athlete and 2014 world junior champion Mary Cain is speaking out against her ex-coach, Alberto Salazar, and Nike, over a cycle of abuse she claims to have endured in the pursuit of excellence in track and field.
In a video op-ed for the New York Times, Cain, 23, says that Salazar demanded that she lose weight in order to compete at an optimal level and would scold her if she was above the 114 pounds that he outlined for her.
The unrelenting pressure by Salazar on the former teen phenom became so intense that Cain says she developed suicidal thoughts and began practicing self-harm by cutting herself.
“Some people saw me cutting myself and nobody really did anything or said anything,” she said.
“I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever,” said Cain. “Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by [Salazar] and endorsed by Nike.”
This was a long time coming. For years, I felt broken and alone- I waited, yet no one reach out to help.— Mary Cain (@runmarycain) November 7, 2019
Now I am ok. But the system isn’t. And I can’t stay silent.
This was hard to share, so thanks @lindsaycrouse & @nytimes for all your support. ❤️https://t.co/9jyreuYKJ0
Among Cain’s accusations against Salazar is that the coach asked her to break anti-doping rules in order to keep her weight down. Cain claims that Salazar, who on Sep. 30 was given a four-year ban for violating anti-doping rules, asked her to take birth control pills and diuretics to promote weight loss. Diuretics are prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
When contacted by the New York Times, Salazar denied Cain’s accusations. He is currently appealing his four-year ban. The Nike Oregon Project was dissolved last month in the wake of its coach and founder’s ban by Nike CEO Mark Parker. Parker, who has publicly supported Salazar in his appeal, announced he would be stepping down from his role in early 2020.
At just 17, Cain became the youngest American to ever make a World Championship team when she finished second in the 1500m at USAs in 2013. That season she also broke American junior records in the 800m, 1500m and indoor mile. She proceeded to advance all the way to the 1500m final in Moscow where she placed ninth. In late 2013 she joined Salazar’s group and in 2014 she moved out to Portland, Oregon, full-time.
Under Salazar’s tutelage, Cain won the 3000m world junior title the following season and once again finished runner-up at USAs in the 1500m. But her success fell off in subsequent years, and in 2016 she left the Oregon Project.
For the first time, Cain is revealing the circumstances surrounding her exit from the maligned group, a program that she says put her physical and mental health in danger. Cain blames Salazar’s weight loss demands and win-at-all-cost culture for her going without a period for three years and as a result, making her more susceptible to injury. Cain says she broke five different bones as an athlete.
Cain cites a humiliating experience at the 2015 Hoka One One Distance Classic where she says Salazar yelled at her, in front of others at the meet, after a poor performance and accused her of gaining five pounds. It was then that she told the coach that she had been cutting herself, which Cain says was not taken seriously.
“For me that was my kick in the head where I was was like, ‘This system is sick,’” she said.
When Cain told her parents what happened, they were horrified and immediately put her on a plane to return home.
“I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics anymore. I was just trying to survive."
The once-promising athlete has competed professionally twice since 2016. In response to this traumatic and life-altering experience, Cain wants a couple things to change in the sport of track and field: one, a shift from Nike away from the cutthroat competitive mindset that encouraged Salazar’s approach and permeated the sport as a whole.
“You can’t just fire a coach and eliminate a program and pretend that the problem is solved.”
Two, Cain would like to see more women in roles of authority so that issues like the ones she faced can be addressed more appropriately.
“I got caught in a system designed by and for men which destroys the bodies of young girls,” said Cain.