Mary Cain: A Girl Abused by Nike


The fastest girl in America. That is what the world thought of her. An athlete, a dreamer, and future Olympic champion. At 17 years old, Mary Cain was already a record-breaking phenomenon. She was the youngest American track and field athlete to ever compete in a World Championship. Not to mention, she was a smart, intelligent, and also a kind young woman. She had it all. But what happened to the aspiring athlete? Why did her talent fade away into a subliminal nothingness? A few weeks ago, The New York Times released an eye-opening video, narrated by Cain herself. The video has garnered well over five million views and counting. Her life, as it seems, all changed with one single phone call. 

Alberto Salazar, an All-American star track coach, was, at the time, the world’s most famous track and field coach. He said Cain was “the most talented athlete he ever had seen” and wanted her to train with him at Nike, accompanied by the fastest runners in the world. After a phone call from Salazar, Cain recalls joining the Nike Oregon Project– a group created by the corporation under Salazar to train and promote American long-distance running– to become “the best female athlete ever.” She then jaw-droppingly states in the video that she was “emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Salazar and endorsed by Nike.”

Her experience with the Nike Oregon Project is nothing short of horrifying. Cain was trained under an all-male staff at Nike. According to her, the staff convinced her that, in order for her to become a better runner, she needed to lose weight. The Nike Oregon Project was seemingly the best program in the country for runners. Yet, there was no certified sports medicine trainer, no certified nutritionist, and no certified sports psychologists. “It was just a bunch of Alberto’s friends,” said Cain in the video. “If I went to anyone in the program, I was told the same thing: to listen to Alberto.” Salazar was consistently pushing Cain to lose weight, his goal weight in mind being 114 pounds, which was severely underweight for such a tall and athletic woman. He weighed her in front of her teammates and would publicly shame and humiliate her if the scale did not read that number. He gave Cain birth control pills and diuretics to lose weight, which is illegal in the sport of track and field. Cain began to develop RED-S syndrome, a serious condition for female athletes. RED-S, standing for relative energy deficiency in sports, signifies a hormonal imbalance. It manifests with disordered eating, loss of menstrual cycles, and decreased bone mineral density. During the Nike Oregon Project, Cain lost her menstrual cycle for three years. 

A woman who receives her menstrual cycle regularly maintains proper levels of estrogen, leading to a substantially normal level of hormones. AP Biology Teacher Charles Vessalico says, “RED-S syndrome could be very dangerous for the health and wellbeing of an athlete. It stems from lack of nutrients and over stimulation. Female athletes must monitor their physical wellbeing during times of intense physical activity.” If the menstrual cycle is lost, then a woman’s levels of estrogen begin to decrease, as well as bone health. Given her condition, Cain broke five bones in a single year.   

Although Salazar claimed he was training Cain to become the best female runner she could possibly be, he was not doing any of this. Cain began to have suicidal thoughts; she began cutting herself on a regular basis. No one on her team said anything about it, and some even gave her makeup to cover it up. Cain was no longer the runner she once was. “I was not even trying to make the Olympics anymore. I was just trying to survive,” said a distraught Cain in the viral video. She was increasing her time and losing steam. Losing steam both in the race and in her life. After one race, Salazar reprimanded her in front of the whole team for gaining five pounds. She finally called her parents, exposing Salazar and all that had happened to her, and they bought her the first plane ticket home. 

Nike shut down the Oregon Project after the doping scandal, banning Salazar from the sport for four years. But what remained unpublished was the crisis happening in women’s sports and at Nike. Young girls’ bodies are being ruined by an emotional, physical cycle of men abusing a system.  

Cain calls for reforms for Nike, the most powerful company in the sports industry. “You cannot just fire a coach and eliminate a program and pretend the problem is solved,” she said. Her fears are that Nike will just rebrand the project, putting Salazar’s assistant coaches at the very top.  

Sophomore Kyla Nembach has been an athlete all her life, a three-sport varsity athlete with hopes of playing in college. “This story seems surreal to me. I see this happening everywhere. Female athletes do not have control or the recognition they deserve. It is hurting young girls. Training for a woman’s sport under only men is the norm, and that just is not right,” said Nembach. Veronica Miller, who coaches club volleyball and softball, and played collegiate volleyball, recalled her faint memories of her time playing: “It is extremely difficult to be a female athlete in today’s world. Constantly, I felt too much pressure from my male coaches. There is too much of an imbalance between athletes and coaches; they should work as a team.”  

The system of sports today is designed and made for men. This is ruining the bodies of young female athletes. Cain fears she may never be able to have children after her struggles with RED-S syndrome. Cain is not the only woman who has fallen victim to this sickening system. As a society, more must be done to protect young females involved in sports. Girls should be encouraged to be the best athletes in the world under reasonable and healthy standards.