Mary Cain’s male coaches were convinced she had to get “thinner, and thinner, and thinner.” Then her body started breaking down.

At 17, Mary Cain was already a record-breaking phenom: the fastest girl in a generation, and the youngest American runner to turn professional. In 2013, she was signed by the best track team in the world, Nike’s Oregon Project, run by its star coach Alberto Salazar.

Then everything collapsed. Her fall was just as spectacular as her rise, and she shares that story for the first time in the Video Op-Ed above.

Instead of becoming a symbol of girls’ unlimited potential in sports, Cain became yet another standout young athlete who got beaten down by a win-at-all-costs culture. Girls like Cain become damaged goods and fade away. We rarely hear what happened to them. We move on.

The problem is so widespread it affected the only other female athlete featured in the last Nike video ad Cain appeared in, the figure skater Gracie Gold. When the ad came out in 2014, like Cain, Gold was a prodigy considered talented enough to win a gold medal at the next Olympics. And, like Cain, Gold got caught in a system where she was compelled to become thinner and thinner. She developed disordered eating to the point of imagining her own death.

“America loves a good child prodigy story, and business is ready and waiting to exploit that story, especially when it comes to girls,” said Lauren Fleshman, who ran for Nike until 2012. “When you have these kinds of good girls, girls who are good at following directions to the point of excelling, you’ll find a system that’s happy to take them. And it’s rife with abuse.”

We don’t typically hear from the casualties of these systems — the girls who tried to make their way in this system until their bodies broke down and they left the sport. It’s easy to focus on bright new stars, while forgetting about those who disappeared. We fetishize these athletes, but we don’t protect them. If they fail to pull off what we expect them to, we abandon them.

But Mary Cain’s story isn’t over. By speaking out, she’s making sure of that.

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  1. Mary made a good choice leaving that team. Sounds like a pretty toxic culture. Something very similar was revealed a couple of months ago with female gymnastics in the Netherlands. Mary offers great suggestions for how to improve the culture. By the way I think there should be less money involved in sports. It should be more about having fun, and I think money ruins it all. But maybe I'm being naive.

  2. To see biology in the context of men and women being referenced to in a NYT video is the ultimate irony. I thought that being a men or a woman was just a matter of self determination.

  3. But, I thought Nike was this super progressive company that supported "racial justice", BLM and Collin Kaepernick! There's no way they would have such a program. Next you'll be telling me they're just interested in profit.

    Also, this has been happening to boys in sports all over the world since for ever and I never seen the NYT talking about it. And I love how they point out the coach was male as if that mattered. As if the know how of the sport itself wasn't to blame.

  4. Ofc this is bad but, the permanently "I was forced by these MEN, bla bla, they ruined my body" makes me sick. You have a brain, fckn use it. Just do, whats good for you. When ur unhappy, you should actually relaise, thats something is wrong. Yes you did the right thing and quit, but to late and this is not these men fault.

  5. It would have been better if I found this kind of diet guide, I would have shed that 14 lbs years back. I did not alter my very own diet regime at all or work out. It unquestionably curbs your own desires for food yet does not make you feel worked up. Google can help you to discover it. Guide’s name is Peyton Huno†az
    good luck

  6. I would have left when I saw the all male staff. Men could never known what is best for women the medical field prioritizes male health. Nike sucks.. the sweatshops, the overpriced clothing, the sexism.