“I was the fastest girl in America.”

Don’t know if you heard what Mary Cain had to say about her experiences with the Nike Oregon Project and being coached by Alberto Salazar. If you haven’t, I encourage you to check it out. It’s a seven minute video that probably ought to be a lot longer. If you need to choose between reading this and watching the video, go watch the video.

In the video, Cain describes the abuse she suffered in Salazar’s coaching system at Nike, the arbitrary weight goals she needed to hit, and the effects it had on her body and her mind. It’s an impactful story, and there’s certainly more to it than can be expressed in 420 seconds.

 

As she struggled to maintain an unhealthy weight, Cain became afflicted with RED-S, which stands for Relative Energy Deficiency In Sports. Apparently it’s also called the Female Athlete Triad, whose acronym is FAT. Not sure who was naming syndromes that day, but they really dropped the ball on that one.

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RED-S is triggered by athletes not taking in enough calories to account for the energy they are expending, and manifests itself in three main symptoms (hence the triad): missed periods, decreased bone density, and disordered eating. In trying to stay true to the plan that her coaches had set for her, Cain suffered three years of lost menstrual cycles and five broken bones as a result of this syndrome. A healthy diet is the key to staving off these problems, but there was no licensed nutritionist on the Nike Oregon Project staff.

Cain also describes serious mental health issues, which led her to self-harm and thoughts of suicide. She talks about losing races before they even began due to a poor mentality. She was isolated in an environment where people she told about these issues ignored them or told her to listen to her coach. No licensed psychologist on the NOP staff either.

 

There is no ambiguity in the issues that Cain faced. She was constantly fighting a war over ownership of her body. It wasn’t just the pressure of weighing a certain amount or looking a certain way, it was the loss of agency over these fundamentally personal characteristics.

I can’t imagine how terrifying and lonely this experience had to have been. Cain was seventeen years old, a kid, when she went to train with Salazar and his team. From being told you’re fast enough to join a team of the best athletes in the world to being told you’re not thin enough to be on the team is insane. The whiplash would break my goddamn neck.

 

In her video, Cain puts forward a two-step plan to solve this problem in sport:

 

  1. Nike needs to change.
  2. We need more women in power.

 

Because the purpose of Cain’s video is to tell her story, it’s not a big deal that her plan is this comically vague. Each step in the plan is meant to spark a conversation rather than inform policy, and I’m really glad she included them.

The first action item on Cain’s list is to change Nike, a 30 billion dollar titan in the track and field industry that snakes its way into every nook and cranny of the sport. The basis for putting Nike in the crosshairs is Cain’s fear that, despite Salazar being banned from the sport (for unrelated doping allegations) and the Nike Oregon Project shut down, Nike will just start a new team run by Salazar’s assistant coaches, resulting in a similarly abusive environment. I agree that cutting the head is not enough to fell the beast, but I’m not sure Nike is the beast that needs felling – not in this instance, anyway. 

 

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The attack needs to be on the mistaken belief that professional athletes are performers first and people second. The mistaken belief that their bodies don’t belong to them, and that they are just tools for their coaches to manipulate. If you can change the paradigm in which the sport operates, the rest will fall into place naturally. Athletes perform their best when they are healthy and happy.

Reinforcing body positivity and good nutrition habits are key in this struggle, as well as recognizing and hiring coaches and staff who understand that every athlete has different needs. Coaches are responsible for teaching athletes habits that will serve them well in sport, but these habits carry over into their daily lives as well. They must be able to see past the sheet of names and times if they want to unlock the full potential of their athletes. There is no other way.

 

This blends into Cain’s second point, which was that the sport needs more women in power. If there were female coaches or nutritionists on the team, Cain postulates, maybe she never would have gone through the trauma that she did. Track and field, like most (all?) sports, is completely dominated by men. Establishing an environment that is inclusive and inviting for everyone will go a long way towards making athletes feel comfortable and that their concerns are being heard.

This, again, is an issue in which the culture of the sport needs to change. Recognizing women as equals is vital. Hiring more female coaches, especially at the middle- and high-school levels, and having different coaches for men’s and women’s teams. Encouraging young women to follow their passions, and giving them opportunities to grow. By nurturing these dreams instead of mocking them, we can achieve the balanced sport that running deserves to be.

 

Admittedly, I constantly have to remind myself that, at its heart, this is not an issue about running, or track and field, or sports, but an issue relating to a person’s agency and their control over their own body. It reminds me of how inexplicably fiery and controversial abortion is, or even birth control. It’s nobody’s damn business! The only person in charge of your body is you. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir on this one, but just in case – just in case! Get your hands off that young girl’s self-worth! Stop touching her faith in herself! What the fuck!

 

I think these things are going to get better. It’s going to take a lot of work, and Mary Cain won’t be the last to endure this kind of hardship, but we’ll get there. In the meantime, love yourself and treat yourself with the same respect you would want from other people. You deserve it.

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