Mary Cain was the best in the country when she signed with Nike in 2013.
The former high school track star was breaking records left and right, and opted to sign a professional deal with Nike after coach Alberto Salazar said she was one of the best athletes he’d ever seen.
Her career, though, never took off.
“I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever,” Cain said in a New York Times opinion piece and video on Thursday. “Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”
In high school, Cain set records in the 800, 1,500 and 5,000 meter races, and then set two U.S. Junior records in 2013 when she was 17 years old. She claimed a spot on the U.S. team for the World Championships that year, too, becoming the youngest athlete to make a worlds team for the United States since 1983.
Yet upon arrival in Oregon after high school, Cain said that Salazar and his all-male staff “became convinced” that she had to lose weight. There were no certified psychologists or nutritionists available to the athletes in the Oregon Project, instead “just a bunch of people who were Alberto’s friends.”
She said they constantly pushed her to lose weight, and would weigh her in front of her teammates constantly. If she didn’t hit Salazar’s target weight, she said would be publicly shamed — he even called her out in front of dozens of people at a track meet in 2015. Cain said Salazar wanted to give her birth control and diuretics to lose weight, too, despite diuretics not being permitted in the sport.
“I ran terrible during this time,” Cain said, via the New York Times. “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.”
Though she acknowledged that weight is important in sports, she claimed Salazar took it to the extreme. She developed RED-S Syndrome, didn’t have her period for three years and broke five different bones while training.
“I felt so scared, I felt so alone, and I felt so trapped,” Cain said, via the New York Times. “I started to have suicidal thoughts. I started to cut myself. Some people saw me cutting myself. Nobody really did anything or said anything … I told Alberto and our sports [psychologist] [one night after a meet] that I was cutting myself, and they pretty much told me that they wanted to go to bed.”
That’s when Cain realized how bad the system was. She told her parents about it, and she quit the team soon after — officially ending her once-promising dreams of becoming the best Olympic runner in the country in recent history.
Nike shut down the Oregon Project last month, and its chief executive resigned. Salazar was banned from the sport for four years by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in September for violating anti-doping rules. He denied many of Cain’s claims, telling the New York Times that he supported her health and welfare. Nike declined to comment.
Update (11/8/19): Nike released a statement later Thursday saying it would investigate. From ESPN:
"We take the allegations extremely seriously and will launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes. At Nike we seek to always put the athlete at the center of everything we do, and these allegations are completely inconsistent with our values."
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