She shocked the running world in 2019 when she came forward with her story of emotional abuse at the hands of her former coach Alberto Salazar. Mary Cain was a 17-year-old phenom when she left her parents’ Bronxville, New York, home to train with the Oregon Project.
She came home 10 months later, broken and depressed.
In her New York Times documentary, Cain, who was a high school national record holder and the youngest woman to ever represent the U.S. in a world-championships competition, described the pressure that Salazar put on her to lose weight in order to perform better. He weighed her in front of teammates and publicly shamed her for not hitting the numbers on the scale that he had demanded, she says.
By the time she stopped training with the group in 2016, she had suffered five stress fractures and hadn’t had her period in three years—symptomatic of RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport), a syndrome of insufficient caloric intake, amenorrhea, and decreased bone density.
Her story unleashed a conversation beyond the confines of the U.S. running community about the destructive culture underlying sports, where antiquated training philosophies perpetuated by a male-dominated coaching profession—and reliance on outdated science—often result in eating disorders and worse for athletes.
“My story was powerful not because of any of my past athletic achievements, but because the content I’m speaking of transcends sports and is systemic within it,” Cain says. “So many women, and men, have encountered similar toxic environments and it’s easy to feel trapped as though your voice will not be heard.”
Cain, 23, has physically recovered from her time at the Oregon Project and resumed training back in New York, she says. She hopes to compete during the indoor track season and contend for a spot at the 2020 Olympic Trials, although she hasn’t said which event yet (her specialty has been the 1500 meters, but we could see her moving up to the 5,000 meters, too).
“I truly look forward to each of my runs because running has returned to a place where I can get lost in my thoughts and emotions in a powerful and healing way,” she says. “Before I told my story I almost found it scary to lose myself in that space while running, so it’s beautiful to feel that it’s once again a truly freeing experience.”
But the Olympic year will hold more meaning than fast times and trials qualifiers. Cain has a platform now and she intends to use it to protect the next generation.
“I still want to be an elite athlete but being an advocate for women’s sports and healthy coaching practices is my new dream,” she says. “Due to lack of education and inappropriate societal norms, many people have a poor understanding of how to address topics such as women’s cycles, weight, and training appropriately. My goal is now to create educational programs that coaches and athletes must take on these subjects.”
This profile was first published in the January/February 2020 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Front Runners: 20 Power Women of 2020” which celebrates 20 elite female runners who are giving power new meaning, and a new image. You can see the full list of honorees here.