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You probably remember her. It was 2012 or so and this high school girl from the New York City suburbs started popping up at pro meets and beating athletes 10 years older. Her post-race interviews were peppered with giggles, appearances by her stuffed duck Puddles, and updates on her AP Latin exam and impending driver’s license test. She was everything you’d expect from a brainy teen who also happened to run abnormally fast.
Mary Cain, now 25, was the next big thing for U.S. track and field. Spectators were drawn to her talent, as well as her exuberance. But when her talent outgrew what her high school could support, it got serious. Alberto Salazar—the Nike Oregon Project coach who had watched her set an American high-school record in the 1500 meters (4:11:01) at the junior world championships in Barcelona—came calling, interested in guiding the career of the promising prep star, the way he had done with another famous phenom named Galen Rupp.
Salazar started coaching Cain remotely during her junior year in high school. Before graduation, she ran her lifetime bests (including 1:59:51 for 800 meters and 4:04.62 for 1500 meters) and became the youngest American athlete to ever compete at the world championships. She gave up her NCAA eligibility to sign a lucrative contract with Nike at 17 years old. Then she moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, in a female body not yet fully developed, to join one of the most revered pro training groups in the world, led by Salazar with Nike’s backing.
But by 2015, at age 19, Cain’s star had faded. She chalked her lackluster racing up to “growing pains” and told the media she hoped they’d pass soon. What she didn’t say out loud: she was cutting herself, suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts, had amenorrhea and other symptoms of relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). Years later, in a 2019 New York Times op-ed, she alleged that during that time, Salazar regularly weighed her in front of teammates, withheld food, and berated her because he thought her breasts and bottom had become too big.
“For a very long time there was this stunting of myself. I’d always been that person who would say, ‘Hey, you’re doing something wrong. I don’t want to be a part of that; I’m going to speak up,’” Cain says. “But I think when you’re not able to understand the experience you’re going through and there’s no understanding that it’s abuse, you self-blame during it. That personality that would step up and make the world better wasn’t there for a few years.”
Cain chose to publicly share her experience after reading an unrelated U.S. Anti-Doping report that found Salazar guilty of violating anti-doping policies. He was banned by USADA until October 2023.
“It suddenly made me realize I’m not crazy. This wasn’t just me being weak. This wasn’t me being overdramatic,” Cain says, two years to the day since the New York Times piece, during an interview in her New York apartment. “This wasn’t just me.”
During those subsequent two years, several former Oregon Project athletes have corroborated Cain’s story and have also come forward (publicly and privately) with their own allegations of abuse. Nike shuttered the Oregon Project in 2019 and Salazar no longer has a coaching contract with the company. Cain, who left the team officially in 2016, filed a $20 million lawsuit in October 2021 against Nike and Salazar for long-term and permanent injuries suffered, as well as an eating disorder, major depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is charged with investigating abuse in Olympic sports, has permanently banned Salazar for sexual misconduct. In response to Cain’s allegations, Salazar has denied wrongdoing, but issued a statement in 2019 saying, in part, that he did not know that discussing weight in elite sport was abusive. “I may have made comments that were callous or insensitive over the course of years of helping my athletes through hard training,” he wrote.
But it wasn’t insensitivity that led Cain to find her calling. It’s the desire to help make sports a safer, more supportive place for the generations coming after her.
“We have to identify the people who are problems. Screw winning, screw your history with the team, screw your relationships,” Cain says. “If somebody is a problem, we have to get them out.”
Making the Team
On a November Friday afternoon, Cain curled up on her gray couch in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Jake Kaufman. The couple bought the place during the pandemic, a little more than a block from Central Park where their rescue pup, Nala, gets plenty of exercise alongside her humans.
Inside the door, a pile of running shoes from all brands (except one, noticeably absent) is stacked against the exposed brick wall and spills into the Manhattan-sized kitchen.
Cain works all three of her jobs from the fourth-floor walk-up. She’s employed full-time as a community manager at Tracksmith, helping coordinate events and activities for the brand in New York. She’s a coach at New York Road Runners. And her newest endeavor is founder and CEO of Atalanta NYC, a nonprofit that employs pro female runners who help create and execute youth mentoring programs while pursuing running careers.
Cain acknowledges that holding down three jobs is unsustainable while trying to get back into her own training, rehabbing some chronic injuries that have required surgery on her hips.
“We always talk about periodization in your life,” Cain says. “For right now, at my age, and for how the world has been in the last year and a half, and because my training’s in the place that it’s in, I could take on more. But it means working really long days and multitasking a lot.”
Atalanta has sponsors such as Tracksmith, Nuun, and AirBnb, plus private donations. It also has a well-connected board, including former NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg; Olympian and entrepreneur Allyson Felix; and Evan Roth, founder of a wealth management firm. Its mission addresses many of the issues that led to Cain’s experiences as a young runner. Pro athletes, who are provided coaching, go through a rigorous interview process to be salaried employees, providing them more stability than a traditional sponsorship, as well as career development for after they’re finished competing. The mentoring component exposes girls in underserved communities to the benefits of movement and exercise.
“I’ve always found one of the biggest problems within the world of sport is that people don’t learn how to be healthy in sport until they’ve been very unhealthy and then have a major intervention,” Cain says. “We’re really trying to get in before and help introduce to kids how to create a healthy environment.”
Two athletes have joined: Jamie Morrissey, a middle distance graduate of the University of Michigan, and Aoibhe Richardson, an Irish runner who competed at the University of Portland. They are coached, alongside Cain, by Jon Green (also coach to Molly Seidel).
Morrissey, who trained with the New Jersey-New York Track Club before joining Atalanta, was attracted to the larger purpose of the organization and its location in the city, she says.
“Mary has obviously been through an incredible amount. To come out on the other side fighting for not only herself and her career, but many others, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” she says. “And the city gives me energy. It feeds me. I’ve always thought it was electrifying and inspiring and motivating.”
As Atalanta adds more athletes to the roster, it isn’t necessarily looking for the fastest PRs or the most athletic potential. It’s far more important that the runners have passion for the nonprofit work they’re hired to do. “Aoibhe immediately said, ‘My career goal has been to create a space in the U.S. that gives free resources to people; where we can teach them how to cook or do exercise classes or provide a health clinic,’” Cain says. “She understood the goals. They’ll be expected to do community service work. There are hours outside of running where they’re expected to perform, but in a different way.”
Richardson, who has a master’s degree in public health, went for the opportunity the day Cain launched it.
“I felt like somebody created my dream job and wrote it down,” she says. “I had something to offer outside of running. I wanted to have something else to devote my time to, but in a way where I could have the flexibility and support to train.”
Using Power for Good
Cain doesn’t take her position lightly. She recognizes that she’s been given a spotlight that others who have lived through similar experiences have not. “I’m a white blonde girl who grew up in a privileged family. I did that New York Times piece and I had millions of people listen and watch. I’ve already achieved a certain level of athletic performance that makes people recognize who I am,” she says. “That power is a privilege and a responsibility. I have a platform, and I’m going to keep running with it.”
Cain’s story has stoked a broader conversation about the systemic failures of youth sports, particularly for girls, who drop out at a faster rate than boys in their teen years, mostly due to body image issues, perceived lack of skill, and feeling unwelcome. In track and field specifically, more athletes are recognizing abusive coaching practices, calling out strategies like public weigh-ins or body fat tests, used in some NCAA programs without any accompanying education about nutrition, fueling, and body composition.
“I hope the more people step up, the more it will be listened to,” Cain says. “And when somebody is not listened to, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t step up. People who have done it always know that whether or not it creates change, you live a little lighter.”
Since leaving the Oregon Project, running hasn’t come back together the way many had hoped for Cain. She’s focused on recovering from the eating disorder, stress fractures, and hip surgery. Over the past six years, she’s also dealt with another injury that makes her lose control of her right leg while running. Doctors now think that an injury from years ago was misdiagnosed, as well as mistreated, remedied at the time by increased strength training. Now, doctors suggest it’s led to long-standing piriformis syndrome, which causes overcompensation on her right leg, where she has a bursa on her knee, resulting in instability.
“The truth is that this whole experience has just made me realize that I’m OK without running,” Cain says. “I think as runners, we’re so often taught that being a little banged up is OK. But it reached a point where I couldn’t really walk without feeling it. And I don’t, long term, want to have more health issues than I probably already developed. From a running perspective, I don’t really care anymore how it goes.”
As her coach, Green wants running to play whatever role is best for Cain. “She’s an extremely good competitor. If she’s ever back on the track racing hard and going after titles, I would fully support that,” he says. “But if changing the sport is the most interesting thing to her, we know that there are phases to life and I’m here to support and help her do that.”
That girl holding court in the mixed zone in 2012 with Puddles the stuffed duck may never reach the athletic achievements that once seemed all but assured in her youth. She’s at peace with that—and has just as much of a desire to disrupt the system as she once did to win world championships.
“If tomorrow I win the Olympic gold, that will never be the fairy tale for me. That will never be the thing that heals the wrongs and makes everything right,” she says. “No matter what I do in sports at this point, I’ve done the big thing already. And that’s standing up for myself, that’s standing up for other people, and that’s trying to create change.”
This profile was first published in the Winter 2022 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Women Who Lead: Power Women of 2022” which celebrates 15 women who are reshaping the running industry for the better. You can see the full list of honorees here.