Mary Cain’s Story Sends a Message to Young Athletes


Photo from the New York Times.

Mary Cain was on top of the world. As a 16-year-old from Bronxville, New York, she beat out pros at the National Women’s Championship in the indoor mile race in 2013. When Alberto Salazar, Coach of the Nike Oregon Project, invited Cain to join the team, it was as if all her dreams were coming true.

16-year-old Mary Cain ran at the Olympic Trials in 2012; photo from

But instead of reaching her maximum potential under Salazar’s guidance, Cain was physically and emotionally abused. She was told that in order to run faster, she needed to become “thinner, and thinner, and thinner.” She was assigned a goal weight of 114 pounds and given diuretics and birth control pills to maintain her weight. Her body began to break down, and by the time she realized she needed to get out she had already developed RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport), lost her period, and broken five bones. She had even lost her ability to perform on the track.

Photo from

Although Cain suffered physical traumas, her mental state was even worse. After being publicly humiliated by Salazar numerous times in front of her teammates, she became suicidal. When she finally confessed what was happening to her parents, they immediately bought her a plane ticket home.

Cain trusted Salazar because he trained some of the fittest runners in the world. But after closer evaluation, she found that neither Salazar nor any of the trainers she worked with at Nike were certified nutritionists or psychologists. Unfortunately, her story follows an all-too common theme, where young athletes are taken advantage of by individuals or corporations in power. Cain’s story sends an important message to high school and college athletes. Just because an individual is in a position of power does not necessarily mean that he or she should be trusted.

Recently, Salazar was suspended for four years under the context of doping violations, and the Nike Oregon Project was shut down. Since Cain’s op-ed was published on The New York Times on November 7, many other athletes who were coached by Salazar have affirmed Cain’s allegations or spoken out about their own abuse.

Shalane Flanagan, winner of the 2017 New York City Marathon, tweeted, “I had no idea it was this bad. I’m so sorry @runmarycain that I never reached out to you when I saw you struggling. I made excuses to myself as to why I should mind my own business. We let you down. I will never turn my head again.”

Shalane Flanagan; photo from

Amy Yoder Begley, Olympian and former Nike Oregon Project runner, claimed that she, too, was ridiculed by Salazar. In September 2011, she claims she was told that she was being kicked off the team for having “the biggest butt on the starting line.”

Amy Yoder Begley; photo from

Salazar has denied Cain’s allegations. In an email to The Oregonian, Salazar stated that Cain’s parents were “deeply involved in her training” during her time running for The Oregon Project. “To be clear, I never encouraged her, or worse yet, shamed her, to maintain an unhealthy weight… Mary at times struggled to find and maintain her ideal performance and training weight.”

Nike also released this statement earlier this month:

“These are deeply troubling allegations which have not been raised by Mary or her parents before. Mary was seeking to rejoin the Oregon Project and Alberto’s team as recently as April of this year and had not raised these concerns as part of that process. 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.”

In response, Cain clarified that she told Salazar she wanted to work with him again because “when we let people emotionally break us, we crave their approval more than anything.” She admitted: “after the doping report dropped that led to [Salazar’s] suspension, I felt this quick and sudden release. That helped me understand that this system is not O.K. That’s why I decided to speak up now.”

Since these allegations, Nike has announced that they will be launching an investigation into themselves.