When Mary Cain went public in 2019 with her story of emotional abuse by her former coach, she vowed she’d do her part to help others avoid such experiences as they grow up in sport. On Monday she announced a new endeavor, a nonprofit organization called Atalanta NYC, that combines women’s professional running opportunities with mentorship for girls in the community.
“Although it’s been overwhelming and a lot to do, it’s been so rewarding going through this entrepreneurial process and knowing that I’m going to ultimately walk the walk instead of just talk the talk around all the advocacy work I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Cain, now 25, said in an interview with Women’s Running earlier in June.
Atalanta is part pro women’s running team and part service organization. The women who are recruited to the team won’t sign traditional athlete contracts, they’ll become employees of the nonprofit organization, taking roles that further their careers after they’re finished competing. They’ll also each serve as mentors to underserved girls in the New York community, for whom Atalanta is creating educational and movement-based programs.
“I have seen all the stats and it’s staggering how much of a dropout rate there is for girls in sport,” Cain said. “A lot of the experiences I underwent as a young athlete unfortunately are systemic.”
Cain joined the Nike Oregon Project under Alberto Salazar, foregoing NCAA eligibility in 2013 to sign a pro contract. She moved from Bronxville, New York, to Portland, Oregon, at age 17, a national high school record holder and the youngest to ever represent the U.S. at the world championships. She came forward in a 2019 New York Times op-ed alleging emotional abuse by Salazar, who she said pressured her to lose weight and publicly shamed her if she didn’t, in a win-at-all-costs team culture.
Salazar has denied the allegations and is appealing a temporarily ban from coaching by the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
Ultimately Cain said she suffered five stress fractures, didn’t menstruate for three years, and suffered depression that led to cutting herself. She officially left the team in 2016 and finished college at Fordham University, earning a degree in business administration. She’s now a community manager at the running apparel brand Tracksmith and is continuing to get back to pro running, too.
“I was lucky to come from a privileged background, one where I was able to pull myself out of it,” Cain said. “I was able to work with the doctors I needed to see and to continue my college education and ultimately find a career path.”
Cain knows that not all girls would have had the resources to emerge on the other side—and aims to prevent these kinds of situations altogether through the Atalanta. The programs are based on the three pillars of education, community, and movement. And the programs encompass the pro team, the community (membership-based) team, and the youth team, open to girls ages 12-20.
“I think very often athletes describe professional sports as a sacrifice and it’s because they’re sacrificing time with their family or they can’t necessarily do some of the fun stuff that people do,” she said. “I don’t like that. To me, sacrifice is when you’re doing something that is giving back to others. All of the runners will have that ethos. Running is an incredible thing, if you use it for advocacy, mentorship, finding your voice.”
Jamie Morrissey, a former member of the New Jersey New York Track Club, is the first new hire at Atalanta and will train alongside Cain (others are being recruited and some will join at the end of the year after their current contracts expire). Jonathan Green has been hired as the pro group’s coach. He’s also Molly Seidel’s coach, guiding her to make the 2021 U.S. Olympic team in the marathon—she placed second in her 26.2-mile debut in February 2020 at the Trials.
Green, 26, said his objective is to help the athletes compete at the highest levels possible while making sure they are “happy and healthy and have balance in life.”
“They’re going to be working and advancing their careers on top of training,” he said. “This hasn’t been done in the past—it’s an organization that will support both. My philosophy is to make sure the whole athlete is getting taken care of and for them to know that it’s OK to have off days or cut workouts short when life is stressful or busy.”
The athletes will take on jobs at Atalanta like graphic design or curriculum development. Whatever interests they want to pursue and skills they want to hone, the opportunity is there. Cain will work on fundraising, including sponsorship development, donor relations, and membership.
To begin, sponsorship support is coming from Tracksmith, AirBnb, and Nuun. And the board of directors includes former NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg; Evan Roth, the founder of wealth management firm BBR; and Allyson Felix, who just made her fifth Olympic team in the 400 meters.
And although Cain is the founder and driver of the organization, she’s adamant that she’ll be the boss of nobody. Green is in charge of training and coaching, and an operations manager is handling contract negotiations and human resources. Cain won’t take a salary from Atalanta.
“It’d be inappropriate if we had a hierarchy in which I’m the person giving them annual reviews,” Cain said. “I want them to kick my butt on the track, day in and day out. I don’t want them to ever have a feeling that this is my ego-booster project. My day-to-day is running the organization as a whole and to lead sponsor and donor conversations.”
Cain sees the organization that can help bring women and girls together to offer support and education in parts of the community that may not otherwise reach girls with opportunities in sport. She also sees it as a place to create the pro running experience that defies the norm.
“We’re going to be coworkers who train together,” Cain said. “Creating a super healthy, positive dynamic is my biggest priority. I just want this to be as exciting and welcoming to people as possible.”