Middle-distance runner Mary Cain, who said she was “the fastest girl in America” when she entered Nike’s now-defunct Oregon Project, described how the training program forced her to lose so much weight that she stopped menstruating and broke five bones.
Cain, a track star who signed with the Nike program headed by famed coach Alberto Salazar at age 17 in 2013, said in a New York Times opinion article published Thursday that the all-male staff was convinced she had to get “thinner and thinner.”
“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,” Cain said in a video accompanying the article.
Cain, now 23, broke multiple middle-distance track records starting in 2011. She became the youngest athlete to represent the U.S. at a World Championships meet when she competed in 2013 in Moscow. Nike’s Oregon Project was the most prestigious track team in the world when she signed on that year.
But that’s when Cain said her ambition began falling apart.
“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,” she said.
Cain said Nike’s Oregon Project, which was shut down last month due to a doping scandal, employed no certified sports psychologists or nutritionists, she said. The elite track team’s trainers were Salazar and his all-male friends, who Cain said constantly pressured her to lose weight with dangerous and sometimes illegal tactics. Last month, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Salazar from coaching for four years for doping violations.
Salazar tried to get her to lose weight with birth control pills and, later, diuretics ― drugs that increase the production of urine and are illegal in track and field. If she didn’t hit her weight target, Cain said Salazar and the other coaches would shame her in front of teammates.
“I felt so scared, I felt so alone and I felt so trapped,” Cain said. “I started to have suicidal thoughts. I started to cut myself. Some people saw me cutting myself. And nobody really did anything or said anything.”
Cain lost so much so much weight that she stopped menstruating for three years and developed RED-S syndrome, caused by a loss of bone density due to disordered eating. RED-S eventually caused her to break five different bones, she said.
“I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics anymore, I was just trying to survive,” she said. Soon after that, Cain quit the team.
Now, Cain is pushing for reform in the sport she loves. Although the Oregon Project has been disbanded and Salazar, for now, is banned from coaching, Cain said she wants Nike to do more.
“Those reforms are mostly a direct result of the doping scandal,” she said. “They’re not acknowledging the fact that there’s 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.”
A Nike spokesperson told HuffPost that Cain’s allegations are “deeply troubling,” adding that Cain and her family had not raised the concerns to Nike in the past.
“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,” the spokesperson wrote.
“We take the allegations extremely seriously and will launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes,” Nike continued. “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.”
Salazar couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Cain shared the article on Twitter, writing that her story “was a long time coming.”
“For years, I felt broken and alone ― I waited, yet no one reach out to help,” she tweeted. “Now I am ok. But the system isn’t. And I can’t stay silent.”
Head over to The New York Times to read the article and watch the video on Cain.
This story has been updated to include comment from Nike.