I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike
November 10, 2019 6:58 PM   Subscribe

In a gutwrenching video, Mary Cain describes the destruction of her body and mind at the hands of Nike coaches - and her belief that the sport can be made better.
posted by clawsoon (28 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Related Runner's World article: The Latest in Mary Cain’s Allegations Against Nike and Salazar.
posted by RichardP at 7:33 PM on November 10, 2019 [2 favorites]


ixipkcams,
I think part of the point is how having “a bad coach” can be more damaging to minors and women. In particular, the obsession over weight loss, to the detriment of other indicators of health, is something that needs to be ended in women’s running. It’s messing people up and ending careers early and if this puts a spotlight on that practice I’m all for it.
posted by q*ben at 7:40 PM on November 10, 2019 [27 favorites]


Or maybe missing something?

Coaching isn't day labor, especially at the elite level. It's a system that's an expression of the values and priorities of the institution and perpetuated and reinforced by that institution. It's not a "one bad hire" issue.
posted by mhoye at 7:48 PM on November 10, 2019 [30 favorites]


I was told that exercise is the cure for excess fat so why is it something athletes even need to think about? (I have a feeling it's actually not, and it's more about a sick power trip and controlling young women's lives and minds)
posted by bleep at 8:04 PM on November 10, 2019 [12 favorites]


I can believe this. Mark Rippetoe, a strength coach, talks a lot about how "the worst strength coaches you will find work for D1 college football programs in the US." Mr. Rippetoe's reasoning is that this is because they coach elite athletes, who are naturally physically gifted, young, and healthy. So whatever they do will work, more or less. So they are never required to learn how to solve problems or vary their approach.

I'm willing to bet that Alberto Salazar, if his wiki page is to be believed never spent any time coaching at a low level. I'm also willing to bet that he based his coaching on how he ran himself, from the link above:

"In 1982 he won his first and only Boston Marathon after the famous "Duel in the Sun" with Dick Beardsley. Salazar won the race in an exciting sprint finish and collapsed at the end before being taken to an emergency room and given six liters of saline solution intravenously because he had not drunk during the race"

Someone who basically destroyed his own career through over-training, had a history of alleged doping violations, and may never have coached anyone who was not an elite athlete already, being turned loose on a variety of developing athletes, does seem like a recipe for disaster.
posted by Grimgrin at 8:05 PM on November 10, 2019 [62 favorites]


[One comment removed; it's okay to want to better understand an issue if you're not clear on it, but it's important to not frame that in a dismissive or "what's the big deal" sort of way, especially right at the start of a discussion.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:45 PM on November 10, 2019 [21 favorites]


Pushing runners to lose weight because you don't know how else to make them faster has been fashionable since my youth, so a long time. Its definitely not only limited to female athletes but they seem to take it more to heart and, critically, have less involved parents and are less likely to stand up to the, usually male, coaches.

As someone who spent 90% of my own youth in the company of one coach, trainer, skipper or another I will say many parents are FAR too trusting. My family was relatively clued in (and therefore not too trusting) and I had good coaches and good peers that I'm still in touch with but boy, there are a lot of dodgy characters out there. Body shaming is bad, over-training is bad: but a lot worse happens. Kids leave home at 14-17 to join teams and programs all the time with really no oversight. Parents need to be a lot more involved in this kind of thing, imho.

I bet Salazar could open a private training business tomorrow and people would sign their kids up. Its easy to blame the governing bodies of sport but they are not solely responsible
posted by fshgrl at 10:49 PM on November 10, 2019 [15 favorites]


Cain, now 23, said Salazar wanted to give her birth control pills and diuretics to lose weight.
Salazar should be investigated for practicing medicine without a license. Completely aside from that, why would anyone hire a known cheater -- no matter how fast he used to be -- to coach?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:48 AM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


It's interesting/sad that in my experience different athletic communities are much worse than others. Powerlifters, throwers, and other strength communities tend to be much more open minded and less militant about body types/composition. I've found that the endurance and ultra endurance communities can include more bodytype shaming.

Back when I used to do sports and conditioning I remember getting into an argument with a few women in one of my lectures. I was talking about different body types tending to cluster around certain sports at a professional level. (Tibia length, femur length, bone density, tendon insertion points, muscle fiber composition etc.) I had the classic Howard Schatz photoshoot slides up and also had example of other well known athletes. One of the women raised her hand and said that Serena Williams would be a much better athlete if she weren't so fat. I was flabbergasted for several reasons and tried to counter her statement as it was very wrong on multiple levels.

To my surprise the other women in the class, were agreeing with her that Williams was too fat. (12 students, about 4 women, the rest men.) Most of my female students tended to come from distance/Ultra backgrounds and I found that the distance running community in general has a real mass phobia. (Also triathlon/iron man.)

As the men tended to come from strength and conditioning/resistance training backgrounds they were usually more supportive/inclusive of larger body types. Since the hollywood aesthetic seems to favor a bodyfat % much lower than most professional athletes excel at, there is a real split between aesthetics and functionality nowadays.

To bleep's comment: Exercise is an effective way to control body composition if that is something important to you. More importantly, many people use exercise or physical activity to help improve mood, combat depression and create/maintain healthy communities. Highly competitive communities can become toxic, especially in regards to young people's' bodies.

Due to factors like athletic training seasons, it is common for athletes to lean up during preseason and put on weight on the off season. This can be normal and healthy or toxic and extreme depending on the sport and culture.

I think it's important to draw the line between health communities helping people to stay active and elite-level athletic training camps.

I probably see more body dysmorphia amongst young boys trying to live upto Marvel Superhero aesthetics than I do young girls. That is not a random sampling, so I am not saying it's reflective of the whole population, but it is an issue. Even this Halloween I was really grossed out by the weird plastic muscles on the superhero costumes. Could one imagine the equivalent fake plastic cleavage on girls' costumes?
posted by Telf at 4:24 AM on November 11, 2019 [26 favorites]


"Ruth Winder's National Championship Win Almost Didn't Happen" came out within a day of this piece on Mary Cain, and it's so similar in detailing the way an athlete's training can go wrong - but so different in how it tells the story of patient, caring coaches who understand that an athlete's health is a core component of their performance.
posted by entropone at 4:36 AM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


why would anyone hire a known cheater

I mean, ok, tell your friends and kids that, but it's amazingly naive.

Lance Armstrong, Rosie Ruiz, Pete Rose, Hansie Cronje, majority of pitchers and sluggers the last 20 years, most Russian olympians?, every NFL team, the NCAA...

Sports (hell any weird competitive endeavors) is soaked top to bottom with cheating.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 5:34 AM on November 11, 2019 [16 favorites]


entropone: but so different in how it tells the story of patient, caring coaches who understand that an athlete's health is a core component of their performance.

That was a really interesting article. Thanks for posting it. I was struck by the difference that having the coaches reach out to someone with specific competence made:
Day reached out to Stacy Sims, Ph.D., a competitive athlete turned exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist who has studied how sex affects training, nutrition, and health.
...and by what a poor indicator of athletic anything weight can be:
Body weight plays a role in screening, but isn’t part of the diagnostic criteria because when the body is in conservation mode, it unleashes a cascade of hormonal disruptions that can slow metabolism and increase fat storage, both of which can keep weight steady.
posted by clawsoon at 5:45 AM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


Rosie Ruiz

It seems to me that someone who qualified for the Boston Marathon by riding the subway is not exactly emblematic of deep seated corruption in sports. Other alleged cheaters are far more competent in their deceptions.
posted by zamboni at 5:52 AM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


I have admired Mary Cain for years. I was hopeful that she could do for women's running what Katie Ledecky is doing for women's swimming--just keep crushing records and proving that we don't know what women are really capable of because we simply haven't been coached well. I hate hate hate that instead Mary Cain's story ends up being pretty much the same as Leslie Haywood's. We've learned very little in women's running in 40 years. We're still not being coached well. I'm just thankful that Mary's story doesn't also include the sexual abuse that Leslie's did.

I was pretty darn good at long distance running as a young teenager, but by my junior year of high school, I had already decided that I just didn't have the desire to make running my whole world and did not pursue it in college. I'm so damn glad.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:03 AM on November 11, 2019 [11 favorites]


Sports (hell any weird competitive endeavors) is soaked top to bottom with cheating.

Maybe so, but unless you want your team to be suspected of cheating, why would you hire a Salazar or an Armstrong to coach it? Also, I don't think Rose belongs on your list. He was caught betting, not doping.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:11 AM on November 11, 2019


A while ago I came across a reflection piece by Lauren Fleshman, a former elite NCAA and international runner.She approaches it from the other end of a career, but she really stresses the need to be in the moment, to let your body grow and evolve at its own pace, and to believe that performance will come (or not) and attempts to trade work or health for improvement rarely works the way you expect.

https://www.milesplit.com/articles/211759/dear-younger-me-lauren-fleshman
posted by Cris E at 6:41 AM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


why would anyone hire a known cheater

When you're looking for a coach for someone at the very top of a sport you want someone who knows about the top level, someone who has been there and understands what separates the elite from the very good. But from the outside it can be hard to tell *how* someone succeeded, and thus how good a coach they might be.

Ted Williams was one of the best hitters in baseball history, but he was a terrible coach because his tips were to see the laces on the ball at the moment the bat hit it. The number of people with that kind of visual acuity is vanishingly small, and while it's swell that Tony Gwynn or some other all-time great could share the experience, most people he tried to coach had no way to relate to him. On the other hand a lot of great coaches and managers were not elite in their sport and only achieved what success they did through making the very most of their skills and abilities. Those are the ones who have both been to the top and have some idea what it's like to get there without perfect gifts from God.

Mary Cain's parents had not hired a world class coach before and had to go with brand names and general consensus to inform their choice. It certainly looked legit from the outside. The trouble is that even when you're in the system you still can't see very far, and it turns out the whole thing can be Outside to the core, turtles to the bottom. To their credit they pulled their daughter when it was glaringly obvious she was in danger, but it just highlights how hard it can be to parent in these top sports environments. Larry Nassar survived for years in a similar cloud of authority, with horrible results.
posted by Cris E at 7:46 AM on November 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


why would anyone hire a known cheater
Salazar was not a “known cheater” when Cain signed with Nike in 2013. The first real public accusations were in 2015 when a brave Kara Goucher outed him (and took a lot of vitriol and abuse for it). It was angrily denied for years and no one outside the program was sure about it until the USADA banned him only about a month ago.

In some arenas, like the strength-based field events or the sprinters you’d be hard-pressed to find any elite coach that doesn’t have some association with doping. Those events are similar to cycling where one suspects that everyone at the top level has to have used performance enhancing drugs but some are just better at avoiding getting caught.

The issue with weight and running is a complex one. It’s essentially an undeniable fact that weighing less makes you faster, at least until a certain point. Elite middle and long distance runners, men and women, are uniformly thin, some to a degree that looks unhealthy to the average person. Pretty much every running coach pushes their runners to get as thin as they can without giving up too much strength. This can easily cross the line into dangerous weight loss and there are hundreds, if not thousands of stories of women who rejected the sport and suffered mental and physical damage from abusive coaches at the college and even high school levels. It has been a serious concern for a very long time. See, for example, this 1992 LA Times article
posted by Lame_username at 7:57 AM on November 11, 2019 [14 favorites]


One thing to remember when reading the story is to keep in mind that running is often about running through and enduring obstacles. You have to run through your body's desire to stop. You have to run through discomfort and sometimes pain. You have to learn to endure hardship. You have to learn discipline and run through rain, snow, cold, heat and anything else that could give you an excuse to quit. So enduring an abusive coach or a physical breakdown can seem like just a matter of degree rather than a qualitative leap from good to bad. It kind of reminds me of when I was in grad school and got a chronic recurring mono infection and didn't realize it for 6 months because I thought I just wasn't handling the stress well.
posted by srboisvert at 8:17 AM on November 11, 2019 [25 favorites]


One of the women raised her hand and said that Serena Williams would be a much better athlete if she weren't so fat. I was flabbergasted for several reasons and tried to counter her statement as it was very wrong on multiple levels.

That people can be so fucking confident of their shitty, know-nothing judgements will never stop astounding me. Oh hey, I know how we can make the worlds best female tennis player better because... uh... I'm probably a genius!

If you're ever sure about something, take 5 seconds to ask why you're so sure and if there's some reason you need psychologically to be so sure to feel better about yourself. Doubt is actually a productive thought! Considering you might not know something is an act of bravery!

This is all horrible, and I'm so sorry for all of the women (and men) who are destroyed by awful coaches and ego-trips physically and mentally. Our society triumphs achievement over process and effort so much that this is what we get.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:46 AM on November 11, 2019 [8 favorites]


That people can be so fucking confident of their shitty, know-nothing judgements will never stop astounding me. Oh hey, I know how we can make the worlds best female tennis player better because... uh... I'm probably a genius!

Distance/ Ultra is the last refuge for people who are blindly competitive but not very athletic. It's completely full of people like this because they've basically willed themselves into the upper-ish echelons of something usually at an older age than most athletes begin to see success and therefore they tend to think their way is The Way. The coaches are all basically weight loss fanatics and or think women would be better athletes if they looked more like men.

Running clubs are fun and healthy, don't get me wrong, but at the "i want to take it further" level there are plenty of coaches out there who prey on insecurity. It is a sport where body type matters at the highest levels and many coaches think they can mold athletes bodies into an approximation of the current top athletes and their job will be done.
posted by fshgrl at 10:37 AM on November 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


I'm talking at the amateur/ junior level mostly, obviously people winning major marathons are inherently talented. But the unhealthy attitude that you can remold your body any way you want to with no consequences, begins to pervade the sport at the junior and amateur levels and grows.
posted by fshgrl at 11:04 AM on November 11, 2019


Distance/ Ultra is the last refuge for people who are blindly competitive but not very athletic. It's completely full of people like this because they've basically willed themselves into the upper-ish echelons of something usually at an older age than most athletes begin to see success and therefore they tend to think their way is The Way. The coaches are all basically weight loss fanatics and or think women would be better athletes if they looked more like men.

Huh. That hasn't been my experience as an ultrarunner, like, at all. I'm very far from elite (way more likely to finish DFL than to podium) , but so is pretty much everyone in this silly sport. When I was training more seriously, my coach was all about finding a healthy balance between running and real life. To the point that more often she held me back than pushed tme on. David Roche, arguably the top coach in ultrarunning right now, is famous for "burger day" -- literally assigning his athletes to eat a big-ass burger once a week. And many elite athletes have been super loud about raising awareness of eating disorders (e.g. Amelia Boone - CW for discussion of eating disorders, obvs).

I've no doubt that there are some corners of the sport that are still shitty about weight, but I really don't see it as common, like at all, in the areas of the sport I've followed and participated in for years.
posted by jacobian at 11:34 AM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


It's definitely common when you become a contender in every sport. It's not pushed by good coaches and the shady or struggling coaches only offer doping or push abuse on people they are pretty sure will not talk and are worth taking the risk for (ie decently good, very hungry to win). It's easy to be in a sport for years and not encounter abuses if you're not the target market. Look at all the people who swore up and down they knew Famous Athlete for decades and they didn't dope and oops- turns out they did. I've said that myself about a former team mate I was SURE wasn't a cheater, someone who's integrity and athleticism I admired very much- and I was wrong. If you're not in those inner circles you don't know what goes on. If you have kids whose coach tries to exclude you in any way or says you don't understand? Find another coach. God knows what they're up to.

The endurance sports are a little different as it's usually adults. I train with some people but am not an ultra competitor (too far!!). My observation is that sport attracts a lot of older type-A people who are willing to pay to get better. In my region women runners and bikers my age (40ish) openly talk about a coach/ doctor combo who will get diagnose you as hypothyroid and put you on supplementation which is supposed to make you eat less. That coach also recommends breast reduction if you "need to wear a bra". I also know some men use HGH and testosterone and they only race locally (look for the suspiciously smooth and shiny people). We have Olympic level athletes in our region but they aren't in this program of course, nor is anyone who ever had a good coach- it's purely aspirational- aimed at people who don't know better. I've seen the same in other sports too. Messing with your health just to be more competitive in the Western Podunk 36-42 trail endurance championships is insane, but people pay good money to do it. And they often do win. Then if they have kids they are passing those values down to the juniors, even if they don't mean to.
posted by fshgrl at 1:38 PM on November 11, 2019 [8 favorites]


I feel like endurance sports are different because after a certain level of training adults of any age can do all (or a lot) of the things the top athletes do, just a lot slower. You can't choose to go into performance sports like diving at 35 and eventually do a Quadruple Whozit, or gymnastics, or high jump. In between these poles are eating disorders, PEDs, and elective surgery. And lamentations, from those who keep buying skateboards into their dotage, "all I wanna do is Ollie up a curb..."
posted by rhizome at 3:18 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


Definitely true. The delusion of maybe going to the Olympics can last a lot longer in some sports than others.

Another thing I never see discussed is that many female atheletes end up in toxic romantic relationships with men in the same program or coaching staff. Even a good relationship between two athletes tends to prioritze the male results and for a girl or young woman it can be very isolating and unhealthy. I remember a friend of mine won a race and her boyfriend commented "wow, Bob (winner of the male division) came in a full hour faster, too bad you're not a guy babe" and walked off. A lot of women and girls internalize that and it becomes hatred of their female bodies, especially as they grow from teens to women.
posted by fshgrl at 4:28 PM on November 11, 2019 [9 favorites]


that Serena Williams would be a much better athlete if she weren't so fat

I can't even... like, better than best? What does that even mean? Maybe if those other athletes weren't so thin they'd be able to compete with Serena...
posted by klanawa at 1:49 PM on November 12, 2019 [6 favorites]


"Pete Sampras would be much better if he weighed six pounds less." - no one, ever.
posted by Cris E at 4:18 PM on November 12, 2019 [6 favorites]


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