I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike | NYT Opinion

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I was the fastest
girl in America. “Mary Cain!” “There are women here almost
twice her age” “being left in her wake.“ I set many national records. And I was a straight-A student. “C’mon, Mary Cain!” When I was 16, I got a call from
Alberto Salazar at Nike. He was the world’s most famous
track coach and he told me I was the most talented
athlete he’d ever seen. During my freshman year in college,
I moved out to train with him and his team full time at Nike world headquarters. It was a team of the fastest
athletes in the world. And it was a dream come true. I joined Nike because I wanted
to be the best female athlete, ever. Instead, I was
emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by
Alberto and endorsed by Nike. This is what happened to me. When I first arrived, an all-male Nike staff became convinced that in order for me to get better, I had to become 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. So when I went to
anybody for help, they would always just
tell me the same thing. And that was to listen to Alberto. 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. He wanted to give me
birth control pills and diuretics to lose weight— the latter of which isn’t
allowed in track and field. I ran terrible
during this time. 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. It would be naïve to not
acknowledge the fact that weight is
important in sports. Like boxers need to maintain
a certain weight, or you know everybody always
ends up citing the math about how
the thinner you are, the faster you’re going
to run because you have to carry less weight. But here’s a biology lesson
I learned the hard way. When young women are forced to
push themselves beyond what they’re capable at
their given age, they’re at risk for developing RED–S. Suddenly, you realize you’ve
lost your period for a couple months. And then a couple months
becomes a couple years. And in my case, it
was a total of three. And if you’re not
getting your period, you’re not going
to be able to have the necessary
levels of estrogen to maintain strong
bone health. And in my case, I broke
five different bones. The New York Times
Magazine published a story about how Alberto was
training me and nurturing my talent. We weren’t doing any of that. I felt so scared. I felt so alone. And I felt so
trapped. And I started to have suicidal thoughts. I started to cut myself. Some people saw
me cutting myself and … sorry. Nobody really did
anything or said anything. So in 2015, I ran this race, and I didn’t run super well. And afterwards, there
was a thunderstorm going on. Half the
track was under one tent. Alberto yelled at
me in front of everybody else at the meet,
and he told me that I’d clearly gained five
pounds before the race. It was also that night that I told
Alberto and our sports psych that I was cutting myself. And they pretty much told me
they just wanted to go to bed. And I think for me, that was
my kick in the head where I was like, “This
system is sick.” I think even for my parents
in certain ways, once I finally
vocalized to them, I mean, they were horrified. They bought me the first
plane ride home. And they were like,
”Get on that flight. Get the hell out of there.” I wasn’t even trying to
make the Olympics anymore. I was just trying to survive. So I made the painful choice and I quit the team. “After a multiyear investigation, the U.S. anti-doping
agency has banned Alberto Salazar from the
sport for four years.” “Nike will shut down
the Oregon project.” “Nike C.E.O. Mark
Parker stepping down from the company
in January of 2020.” Those reforms are
mostly a direct result of the doping scandal. They’re not
acknowledging the fact that there is a systemic
crisis in women’s sports and at Nike, in which
young girls’ bodies are being ruined by an emotionally
and physically abusive system. That’s what needs to change,
and here’s how we can do it. First, Nike needs to
change. In track and field, Nike is all powerful. They control the top
coaches, athletes, races, even the governing body. You can’t just fire a coach
and eliminate a program and pretend the
problem is solved. My worry is that
Nike is merely going to rebrand
the old program and put Alberto’s old
assistant coaches in charge. Secondly, we need
more women in power. Part of me wonders
if I had worked with more female psychologists,
nutritionists and even coaches where I’d be today. I got caught in a system
designed by and for men, which destroys the
bodies of young girls. Rather than force young
girls to fend for themselves, we have to protect them. I genuinely do have
hope for the sport. And I plan to be running
for many years to come. And so part of the
reason I’m doing this now is I want to end this chapter and I want to start a new one.

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