British Columbia

Thinner isn't better say B.C. athletes, coach after U.S. runner's allegations against Nike club

As a teen, Mary Cain was one of the best runners in the world until she says her elite coaches demanded weight loss. She recently spoke openly about her ordeal with the New York Times. Athletes and coaches around the world, including here in B.C. are condemning how she was allegedly treated.

As a teen, Mary Cain was one of the best runners in the world — but coaches demanded weight loss, she claims

In this June 1, 2013, file photo, Mary Cain, 17, right, reacts as coach Alberto Salazar tells her she has just broken the American high school 800-metre record during the Prefontaine Classic track and field meet in Eugene, Ore. (The Associated Press)

Athletes and a prominent elite running coach from B.C. have joined the chorus of voices supporting an American runner who shocked the sporting world with allegations of abuse with an elite Nike running club.

Mary Cain, 23, told her story on the opinion pages of The New York Times this week in a video essay called 'I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike.'

At 17, Cain was breaking records and competing at the highest level in the world. Her success resulted in an invitation in 2013 to join an elite training group in Oregon sponsored by Nike and coached by former elite world-class marathoner Alberto Salazar.

Cain claims after joining the group she was emotionally and physically abused. She said the all-male staff with the team was obsessed with her losing weight in order to get faster. 

 

The story has elicited strong reaction within the sport, including here in Canada.

'Don't need to be super skinny' 

"You know it's very upsetting to read all of this stuff," said Natasha Wodak, a Canadian Olympian and the national record holder for the 10,000 metres.

"You don't need to be super skinny to run fast. You know you need to be strong. You need to be healthy."

"[Mary Cain] had a male coach and male [staff] around her that were not nurturing her. They were just saying you need to be thin and they weren't understanding her at that age."

Wodak, 37, of Surrey, says she did not face the same abuse about her weight during her career, but is not surprised by Cain's revelations.

Natasha Wodak of Surrey, B.C. says she was upset to read Cain's allegations that she was forced to lose weight to get faster. (Submitted by natashawodak.com)

"I've heard comments before — coaches saying to athletes ... at team dinners: 'Are you sure you want to have that brownie or are you sure you want to eat those chicken nuggets," she said.

In the Times video, Cain said as the pounds came off, her results worsened.

She stopped getting her period, suffered four broken bones and deliberately cut herself as a coping mechanism.

Public shaming

She claims she was shamed in front of her peers by team coaches if her weight went above 114 pounds or 52 kilograms.

Wodak says she has been fortunate to have supportive coaches and support staff, many of whom have been female. Cain, in the Times piece, said she would like to see more women mentors in the sport.

Wodak hopes that Cain's story will empower others who are not getting enough support to also speak out.

"Mary Cain sharing her experience was, I mean, very brave," she said. "I hope that other young female athletes in women's distance running or any sport that are going through something like that feel that they can they can speak out and they can get help."

Two-time Olympian Brit Townsend has been the head coach for Simon Fraser University for more than 20 years. (SFU)

Brit Townsend, head track and field coach at SFU for more than 20 years, said she has watched Cain's career since she was a young teenager posting remarkable early results.

"I think it's difficult because when athletes are so good so young they're also naive," she said. "They have a lot of other people making decisions for them and they are vulnerable."

Coaches and team managers, she says, need to be responsible in shaping athletes, and not do harm.

"How do we manage them so that they can actually reach and realize their potential in a positive, healthy way?" she said.

Apology

Since the Cain article was published, the athlete has thanked those who have voiced support.

 

Track athlete Cam Levins, from Black Creek on Vancouver Island, trained with Cain in Salazar's program. He apologized over Twitter for not doing more to support Cain in Oregon.

 

The New York Times says Nike has also responded and promised to launch an investigation. Nike said in a statement published by the media outlet that Cain's allegations are "deeply troubling" and "inconsistent" with the company's values. 

In September, Salazar was banned from the sport for four years by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for, among other violations, possessing and trafficking testosterone while training top runners at the Nike Oregon Project.

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