Runner Mary Cain Talks Culture of Emotional & Physical Abuse at Nike’s Oregon Project

Following up on scandal at the company that led to her former coach being banned from the sport for four years, star runner Mary Cain says she was “emotionally and physically abused” while training with Nike as a teen. The runner, who rose to notoriety as the youngest American track and field athlete to qualify for a World Championships team at 17, alleges that the exploitative system and toxic culture upheld by Coach Alberto Salazar and endorsed by the famed athletics brand allowed her and other young athletes to suffer, mind and body.

Recounting her experiences moving out to work with Salazar during her freshman year of college, Cain says she was at first thrilled to be training with some of the world’s greatest athletes as her peers and the largest brand in the game. Yet, she started to notice that the goals of the coaching staff didn’t seem all that concerned about her health. Cain alleges that the Salazar’s staff, made up entirely of men, became fixated on her losing weight in order to get faster — resorting to publicly shaming her, pressuring her into going on birth control and diuretics, and developing patterns of disordered eating, with suicidal ideation and self-harm following as conditions got worse.

Mary Cain, Alberto Salazar Mary Cain, 17, right, reacts as coach Alberto Salazar tells her she has just broken the American high school 800-meter record during the Prefontaine Classic track and field meet in Eugene, OrePrefontaine Classic Athletics, Eugene, USA
Mary Cain, Alberto Salazar Mary Cain, 17, right, reacts as coach Alberto Salazar tells her she has just broken the American high school 800-meter record during the Prefontaine Classic track and field meet in Eugene, Ore
Prefontaine Classic Athletics, Eugene, USA
Don Ryan/AP/Shutterstock.

“An all-male Nike staff became convinced that in order for me to get better, I had to become thinner — and thinner and thinner and thinner. This Nike team was the top running program in the country, and yet we had no certified sports psychologist, there was no certified nutritionist. It was really just a bunch of people who were Alberto’s friends,” Cain said in the video. “Alberto was constantly trying to get me to lose weight. He created an arbitrary number of 114 pounds and he would usually weigh me in front of my teammates and publicly shame me if I wasn’t hitting weight.” (Salazar reportedly denied Cain’s claims in an email to the New York Times.)

Cain says that obviously, as an athlete, weight isn’t a non-issue. But being forced to lose and maintain a weight in that environment without the proper resources, support and care can (and did) lead to numerous health complications.

“Here’s a biology lesson I learned the hard way,” Cain said. “When young women are forced to push themselves beyond what they’re capable at their given age, they’re at risk for developing [Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports] (RED-S) syndrome.”

When an athlete isn’t able to nourish their body with the proper amount of food and nutrients for the energy they’re using, it can lead to unintended hormonal effects throughout their body. For women especially, it can lead to a loss of periods, which sets off a chain reaction decrease in estrogen that can weaken their bones.

That’s what happened to Cain. She says after three years of not getting her period, she broke five different bones due to her condition.

Now, away from the Oregon Project program (which is being shut down following the doping scandal) and on the path to recovery and resuming her running, Cain is turning her sights toward the root of the problem: the toxic culture around sports and young women’s bodies and the system that keeps it going and keeps the perpetrators protected.

“I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls,” Can said. “Rather than force young girls to fend for themselves, we have to protect them.”

Watch the full video from The New York Times below: 

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