I Was Mary Cain

(This post is in reference to Mary Cain’s New York Times video op-ed about the abuse she suffered under ex-Nike head coach Alberto Salazar, which you can watch here. TW: eating disorders, abuse)

In many ways, I was Mary Cain.

My body was weighed, measured, picked apart, scrutinized, and never good enough. I was always too big or too small, or worse: made into a prototype; a weapon that directly contributed to the abuse of others. Coaches used to point to me during workouts and tell my teammates things along the lines of: “If you were as small as Katie, maybe you’d be as fast as her.” Mind you, these were the same coaches who demanded I gained weight and critiqued everything that went on my plate at team dinners. These mixed signals sent two clear messages: 1.) my body would never be good enough, and 2.) my body was a potential danger to the health and well-being of people I cared about. 

I was degraded for poor performances, for hesitating to train through injuries, and for running badly when I did decide to gut it out after being coerced into pushing myself too far. Sometimes I was given the silent treatment after bad outings, which was even worse. I’m still reeling from what was said (and not said) to me on crowded tracks and private offices, but therapy is going well. 

I was publicly weighed in training rooms, body shamed, and belittled for an eating disordered I had little control over. I also watched my teammates endure the emotional trauma of being housed in bodies that were, like mine, never good enough, either too big, or too small in a sport that demands that women shrink themselves as much as possible, but not too much, of course. Because we knew we were to solely to blame when our bodies inevitably failed us like mine did.

I lost my natural period for seven years, and was a walking injury in college: I dealt with everything from tendinitis to muscle pulls, to functional scoliosis. The only injury I (miraculously) didn’t accrue was a stress fracture, probably because I took birth control to artificially elevate my dangerously low estrogen levels in order to protect my bone density. At any rate, my team more than made up for my lack of stress fractures with breaks of their own, as did Mary Cain. She broke five bones during her time at Nike while competing in a non-contact sport. Alberto Salazar didn’t have to lay a hand on her to physically abuse her, and neither did the coaches who injured my teammates and me vicariously.

The worst part of it all? I was complicit: I never spoke up about what was being done to myself and my teammates. It might be illogical, but I can’t help but think that I could have done something to stop all of this while it was happening. But I stayed silent because I was determined to tough it out like a good athlete. Looking back now, I can see that I was too desensitized to view any of it as abnormal anyway, but I still live with the guilt of failing my team every single day. In my mind, I was an abuser of sorts, too.

But Katie, if it was so bad, why didn’t you just quit? And Mary Cain could have walked out at any time too, right?

That’s not how this works. Abusive relationships are gripping, especially when money is involved. 

Mary Cain chose to run for Nike professionally instead of competing in college, so her sport was her livelihood. She was eighteen years old when Salazar got a hold of her, with no job experience other than running fast and long. It doesn’t help that athletes, especially endurance runners, have an unreal pain tolerance, too. Mary Cain wasn’t wired to fold and she literally could not quit her job as a professional runner. Her survival depended on her ability to endure trauma.

Scholarship athletes competing under the NCAA (in all sports) are placed in an eerily similar scenario. Vulnerable 18-22 year-olds who are wholly dependent on their coaches, conditioned to endure pain, and terrified of getting their scholarships revoked are easy targets for abuse. If a coach can dangle a scholarship over their athletes’ heads, that coach can get an entire team to do just about anything.

The NCAA wants everyone to believe that college athletes aren’t university employees, but that’s not the reality when, like Mary Cain, college athletes compete for their keep. We might not run for Nike, but that’s why we “just do it”: Quitting simply isn’t an option when scholarships are involved, regardless of the systemic abuse that takes place under the governing bodies that oversee college athletes. And I wish fans cared about that as much as they care about bringing back NCAA video games.

4 thoughts on “I Was Mary Cain

  1. This type of abuse is simply heartbreaking, Katie. Makes me see the worst of humanity and just how easily coersed people are into doing terrible things to undeserving, vulnerable people when money is involved. Do you feel that coaches in High School treated athletes in much more deserving and fair way? And do you personally feel there is a way to fix how coaches interact with athlete to promote mental health?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Inna, thanks so much for the comment. There are definitely problems at the high school level, but the biggest issue in college is money. College athletes are so dependent on their scholarships that the possibility of getting it revoked makes them coerce-able. I think athletes need leverage at the college level, whether that means contracts, or unions, or something else. And coaches need to stop pushing athletes so hard and start prioritizing mental health just as much as physical health.

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