MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As a high school student, Mary Cain was known as the fastest girl in a generation. At 17, she became the youngest American ever to make a world championship track and field team. Then she joined Nike's elite Oregon Project, and her body and her running career fell apart.
Cain says that happened because she was surrounded by an all-male coaching team who were unqualified and ill-equipped to coach a teenage girl, and their training methods not only broke down her body. They nearly broke her mental health. Now at 23, she's begun speaking out. She posted a graphic and powerful video describing her experiences as part of the New York Times' "Equal Play" opinion video series, and she is with us now.
Mary Cain, thanks so much for joining us.
MARY CAIN: No, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, first of all, how did you start running? How did you figure out that you were good at this?
CAIN: I think kind of like a lot of kids do growing up in that I was the fastest kid in elementary school. And then in middle school, I was encouraged to try out for the varsity program because in the school I went to, it was K through 12. So if you were in middle school, you could actually compete with the high schoolers. And by seventh grade, I made the New York state championship meet. And so it just kind of took off from there.
MARTIN: So did you - people just go, like, wow, that girl is fast?
CAIN: I mean, the truth is, you know, in elementary school, I ran some times that were, you know, unofficial just kind of, like, gym class mile-level stuff. And I remember I clocked as a fifth grader maybe a 6:10 mile. And the coaches at the time, who, you know, just taught the gym class, were, like, whoa. That's really fast. And after, like, a quick Google search later at home, we were, like, oh, that would actually rank you surprisingly high in the country.
CAIN: And it was just a very weird, maybe low-key way to get into the sport because it was so - just for fun.
MARTIN: So how did you come to the attention of the Nike project, the Oregon Project, which was headed at the time by a very famous runner named Alberto Salazar? How did that happen?
CAIN: So in my sophomore year of high school, I ran in Barcelona for the World Junior Championships, and I set the national record for the girls' 1,500 meters in doing so. And so Alberto actually had watched my race and was just really impressed and ended up calling up my family's house and saying that he was interested in helping me kind of reach the next level and coaching me from afar originally.
MARTIN: So when did it start to go bad for you? I mean, because at this point, you - what I hear you saying is that, you know, running was fun. It was something you did because it was fun, and you were good at it. So when did you start to feel that something's not right here?
CAIN: Really, the biggest turning point was when I moved out to Portland. You know, hindsight's 20-20, so I can look back and say, oh, you know, there were warning signs even during those years where we had a long-distance coaching relationship. But I was buffered by my family and my friends and this other life that I had just in my hometown, and so running stayed fun. But as soon as I went out to Portland and was with the team full-time, things started to break down.
MARTIN: One of the things that you talked about in your piece for The Times was that - you made several points. One is that they would weigh you in front of other people. And, you know, tell me why that strikes you as so wrong.
CAIN: I think one of the biggest things for me during that experience was that some of the athletes he was weighing me in front of were my direct competitors. Not only were they teammates, but they were women that I was actually competing against in order to qualify for World Championship teams and Olympic teams. And just having, like, a direct competitor look at me as failing, I think, was, from an athlete perspective, so mortifying.
But then from a personal issue, I was an 18-year-old girl. We live in a society in which female weight is both fetishized and also under so much scrutiny. And so trying to shame somebody into losing weight is just such, I mean, an emotionally, psychologically and mentally traumatizing way to coach somebody.
MARTIN: You had other health effects, as I recall from your piece. You didn't get your period for three years. Explain again why not getting your period for three years is a problem.
CAIN: Absolutely. So if you lose your period for an extended period of time, then you're at risk to developing health issues, including bone problems. So when your estrogen levels drop - estrogen helps bone development. And when you're in these very vulnerable years such as your teenage years, early 20s, you are still growing. You are still developing. And so if you put your bone health at risk, you can develop weak bones.
And there's many women who are in this sport who have developed osteoporosis and osteopenia and, as a result, end up breaking their bones a lot. And I was on track to have a lot of really long-term health problems because my bone density did start to drop.
MARTIN: You said at some point that you became suicidal and that you actually started cutting yourself. Did you talk to the coaches about that? And when you did - or if you did - what did they say?
CAIN: So the man who was representing himself as a sports psychologist - he actually witnessed me cutting myself a couple times, and he never directed me to a medical professional for help. Instead, he just said pretty much the jargon of toughen up. You know, you shouldn't do that.
And I ended up - after one particularly bad experience where I honestly just completely blew up and tried to make myself throw up and was cutting myself and just really traumatized after one particular race in which my coach had told me that I was five pounds too heavy and that's why I ran bad, I told both Alberto and Darren Treasure, who was our sport psych, that, like, I didn't know what to do. Like, I knew I was on a self-destructive path. I was really scared.
And I'm sorry. I'm starting to get a little emotional. But I think, you know, looking back at that time, I feel so bad for that girl. And I'm so happy that I'm not her anymore. But I know there's so many people out there right now who are going through similar stuff, and that so breaks my heart.
And it's so scary to think that I could sit in that room, and those two men could just say they wanted to go to sleep and didn't want to talk about it more. And I was asking them for help in the lowest of all moments for me, and they didn't want to hear it. They didn't want to help me. I mean, honestly, they just insinuated I was being too emotional and needed to get over it.
MARTIN: How did it finally stop? How did you finally get out of that situation?
CAIN: So after that sit-down with my coach and the sports psych, I called my parents, and I admitted that I had been trying to make myself throw up and that I needed their help. And so I ended up going home. And, you know, honestly, my parents looked on in horror and tried to get me all the help that I could get during this time. But it's been a process - one that I'm happy to say I'm on - I feel I'm almost fully out of. But, I mean, God, it's taken years.
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because after you spoke out, a number of people responded on Twitter and through other means. But basically, you know, Twitter's what's available to us. And...
MARTIN: A number of people came forward to validate your experiences. They either said that they had been treated similarly or they said that they had seen the behavior. They had witnessed it. And a number of them expressed regret that they didn't do more to intervene.
But also - well, Nike also has, as I'm sure you know, released a statement. While saying your allegations are deeply troubling, they claim that you never raised them before or that your parents did not raise them before and that they also say that you were seeking to rejoin the project and Salazar's team as recently as April of this year, and you didn't raise these concerns. Can you speak to that?
CAIN: Yeah, absolutely. In regards to the Nike statement, I was honestly so horrified and disappointed that this giant billion-dollar corporation was going to come out and try to discredit or blame me or shame me in some sort of way. Why is their first reaction to defend this coach?
MARTIN: Alberto Salazar, who, as you've noted, has, in fact, been banned for four years because of anti-doping violations. But Salazar wrote to The Oregonian when your allegations became public. And he says that, I never encouraged her or, worse yet, shamed her to maintain an unhealthy weight. And he says that you struggled to find and maintain your ideal performance and training weight. Do you want to respond to that?
CAIN: Yeah. Honestly, when I read that, I just laughed. And I honestly just laughed in probably the most, you know, almost freaky way I could because I was, like, he still probably looks at me as a big girl and blames me for not hitting the weight that he, for some reason, thought was my ideal body weight.
MARTIN: You know, after all this, I mean, this was something you loved. You loved running. You ran...
MARTIN: ...Because it was fun, you know? Do you think you'll ever run again?
CAIN: Yeah. I haven't stopped (laughter). I'm still running. I'm still training. I hope to be racing in the next couple of months. The truth is the reason that I have been off the circuit for as long as I have is because I've been dealing with the health implications of everything that happened. So I've suffered quite a few injuries due to lowered bone density. It's only been in the last year where I've been finally able to maintain a string of health, and my bones are stronger. And I'm feeling good, and I'm just honestly having fun with it again.
And I know I will run for the rest of my life because the actual act and art and feeling of running I love, and I hope to compete on a high level. I hope to be out there showing people that you can come back from really tough, awful times. And so hopefully, you'll see me out there in 2020 on the track.
MARTIN: That was middle-distance runner Mary Cain talking to us from New York.
Mary Cain, thank you so much for talking with us. I hope we'll talk again.
CAIN: Yeah. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER AND SCOTT AMENDOLA'S "GHOST MALL")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.