On November 7th, 2019, The New York Times published an op-doc about Mary Cain, a professional runner and former member of the Nike Oregon Project (NOP). In the video, Cain recalls her journey to professional running for the NOP and discusses the emotional and physical abuse she was subject to during her time there.
Cain was a standout athlete and student in high school, leading her Bronxville High School track and field team to numerous state and national titles, while maintaining an ‘A’ average off the field. Cain’s success both on and off the field quickly thrust her into the national spotlight and at 16, she received a call from Alberto Salzar, the head coach of the NOP.
Cain says Salazar told her she was “the most talented athlete he’d ever seen,” so during her freshman year in college, she moved to Oregon to train with Salazar and his team at the Nike World Headquarters. However, things quickly took a turn for her.
As Cain puts it, “I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete, ever. Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”
According to Cain, Salazar became convinced that to get better, she needed to get thinner and would publicly shame her for her weight. She describes how her condition quickly deteriorated to the point where she ended up losing her period for three years, breaking five bones and developing suicidal thoughts. She says, “It reached a point where I was on the starting line and I’d lost the race before I started, because in my head all I was thinking of was not the time I was trying to hit but the number on the scale I saw earlier that day.”
Cain’s accusation came a little over a month after Salazar received a four-year ban from coaching from the United States Anti-Doping Agency. He was found guilty of “orchestrating and facilitating prohibited doping conduct” by the American Arbitration Association, but the charges against Salazar, which include administering illegal quantities of trafficking testosterone (a banned substance) and tampering with the doping process, have already been reported on by others in the past. By the time Cain’s accusation surfaced, Salazar had already developed a distasteful pattern of misconduct.
In regards to Cain, several other members of the now-defunct NOP, including athletes Cam Levins and Kara Goucher and coach Steve Magness came forward to corroborate her claims. Goucher has been heavily involved with issues surrounding Salazar in the past -- she was one of the whistleblowers who reported Salazar in 2015. In an article published by WBUR, Goucher says Salazar “[Gave] me a prescription drug that I did not have a prescription for and told me to take it to lose weight in an effort to enhance my performance… In the months that followed, I saw teammates getting IVs for hydration which is against the rules."
More athletes have come forward in lieu of Cain’s accusations but Salazar has mostly denied any wrongdoing. In a statement issued to Sports Illustrated, Salazar said that his intention had always been to “promote athletic performance in a manner that supported the good health and well-being of all his athletes.”
It cannot be denied, however, that there is a global issue of abuse in sports.
The Larry Nassar scandal was one among many instances of young athletes being subject to emotional and physical abuse. Caster Semenya, a South African middle distance runner, was temporarily banned for competing because of her naturally-occurring testosterone levels. American middle distance runner Alysia Montaño decided to have a baby and Nike pulled her sponsorship. These cases are just some of the hundreds, many of which go unreported, that have impacted athletes in negative ways. The theme? Almost all of the abuse is directed towards women.
In 1972, the U.S. passed Title IX, a law that mandated equal treatment for the sexes in educational institutions receiving federal funding. Aside from many institutions poorly implementing Title IX, endemic sexism prevented women from stepping into leadership roles, especially in sports.
Men also continued to dominate in women’s sports medicine, holding jobs in prestigious power roles, such as Nassar’s at USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Michigan State University. As Aly Raisman emphasized in her testimony against Nassar, other authority figures pointed to Nassar’s expertise in the orthopedic field as a reason the girls had to be treated by him. Nassar’s patients started reporting his abuse in the 90s, and had anyone actually followed up on these Title IX complaints, almost three decades of abuse could have been avoided.
In the op-doc about Cain, she repeatedly cites the fact that her coaches at the NOP were all male. She says, “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.” The title of the video, “I was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike” also points not only to the issue of an all-male staff, but to the skewed priorities of one of the largest companies in America and the world. She acknowledges that Nike played a large role in her systematic abuse, remarking that “[Nike] control[s] the top coaches, athletes, races, even the governing body. You can’t just fire a coach and eliminate a program and pretend the problem is solved.”
Mary Cain undergoing stress testing at the NOP in 2014
Photo via Mary Cain's Instagram
Mary Cain at the New York Marathon in 2015.
Photo via Mary Cain's Instagram
On the surface, Cain’s experience may seem so terrible that it is hard to imagine anything like the abuse she suffered as a female athlete. But for Cassandra K. ’21, the evidence of sex-based discrimination in sports is everywhere. “As a female athlete, who is aware of the prejudices we face on the elementary and professional level in terms of wage gap, respect, and air time, it is upsetting to read and watch stories like Mary Cain’s and see the great potential she lost because Nike forced her to lose an unhealthy weight,” says Cassandra.
Westridge is a much different environment for athletes than the toxic, male-dominated space Cain trained in. As much as athletics are valued, academics come first for most students at Westridge, and extreme pressure to perform on the field, such as what Cain was subject to, vanishes. No, Westridge athletes are not professional athletes like Cain, but either way, the Westridge coaching staff understands that there is no room for abusive or unfair coaching.
As Athletics Director Melanie Horn says, “‘Winning at all costs’ is a disease that too many coaches and athletes have fallen prey to and, from what I can tell, there is no cure.” There does not seem to be a “win at all costs” attitude amongst coaches at Westridge, and the environment created for athletes at an all-girls school like Westridge prioritizes the needs of female athletes.
However, the safe space Westridge creates for female athletes is absent in many other high school, college and professional programs around the world. Cassandra says, “I find it unfair that men are not under pressure to conform to a certain look that any female athletes might feel the need to subscribe to in order to appeal to those who are otherwise uninterested in seeing strong women achieve.” The unfair standards for women in sports have continued for decades, and as Mary Cain proves, the pressure to conform to those standards can quickly become far too much to handle.
As hopeless as it all sounds, Cain has a solution to the ever-prevailing issue of abuse in women’s sports. She says, “We need more women in power. Part of me wonders if I had worked with more female psychologists, nutritionists and even coaches where I’d be today. Rather than force young girls to fend for themselves, we have to protect them. I genuinely do have hope for the sport. And I plan to be running for many years to come. And so part of the reason I’m doing this now is I want to end this chapter and I want to start a new one.”