Mary Cain Takes the Next Step

Mary Cain didn’t expect to feel so free.

In November, she shared her story of how she went from the fastest girl in America to a runner physically and emotionally broken down by the renowned coach Alberto Salazar. Cain expected the story to make some waves within the running community — some positive, some negative.

Instead, she was met with, and overwhelmed by, a global response. Suddenly, she had not only a new platform, but also a wealth of opportunities, even though her most recent running performances would not qualify her for the world’s most competitive events.

Fellow runners stepped up to share their own stories, and some apologized for not recognizing what was happening to Cain right in front of their eyes. She became a resounding voice for the need to fix girls’ sports, and she was able to complete her first full running season in four years healthfully.

“The emotional weight being lifted just let me run free and commit to it,” Cain said over the phone from Long Island, where she has been living with her boyfriend and training since the start of the pandemic. “I have almost been able to refind a joy for running.”

Cain is now taking the next step in her career: She is the first of two professional runners, along with the Olympian Nick Willis, to be sponsored by Tracksmith, a running company based in Boston. The company is exploring a new kind of sponsorship in which professional athletes are treated like full-time employees.

In addition to competing as a professional runner as soon as it is safe to do so, Cain will take on a role as community manager for Tracksmith in New York City, where she will be tasked with building the brand’s presence in a city chock-full of running clubs.

While completing the About Me section of Tracksmith’s onboarding forms, she realized it was the first time she was describing herself in a way that wasn’t one-dimensional. She wrote of her New York pride; her dog, Nala; a fondness for Greek mythology; her love for writing. Oh, yes, and her running.

It’s a dramatic shift to how Cain has long been known, and long seen herself. She qualified for the Olympic trials at 16, and became the youngest American track and field athlete to make a world championship team at 17. She was called a teenage phenom, a rising star, a unique talent. She was signed as a professional runner for Nike out of high school. Salazar coached her. As she described in an Opinion video for The New York Times, she was then “emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”

Salazar, who has since been barred for four years for violating antidoping rules, has denied abusing Cain. Salazar was placed on the United States Center for SafeSport’s temporarily banned list in January, a disciplinary action that could result in a lifetime ban.

Her new contract is a world away from the traditional professional running model, in which most runners are paid quarterly and receive bonuses for making national teams and winning medals at the Olympics or the world championships. They must compete in a certain amount of races annually, and in some cases, are expected to hit certain times. Should they perform poorly or fail to reach benchmarks, their salary can be cut the next year.

Cain said she was no longer interested in an environment where “you are seen as a body rather than a mind.”

To be clear, she still wants to compete, and win. She has had a fierce competitive drive since she was young, and remembers the name of the first grader who would occasionally beat her in gym class. She was able to run faster than him by second grade. She has a long way to go to hit times that will qualify her for the Olympic trials again, but she has a dogged determination to get there, and a newfound perspective, too.

“I absolutely think I have the ability to be a world-class athlete and make a team,” she said. “But even if I never make another world championship team or Olympic team, I think there are so many things I can say about the sport that can really excite me and bring me a lot of motivation in the day to day.”

She was encouraged by another athlete who found a sponsor that allowed her to run professionally while also pursuing creative pursuits: the Greek Olympian and filmmaker Alexi Pappas. They consider themselves long-distance teammates who can inspire and encourage each other.

Pappas signed with Champion in 2018, two years after running in the 2016 Olympics as a sponsored Nike athlete.

“The way people consume sports has changed,” Pappas said over the phone from a training camp in Greece. People aren’t just looking for athletes on the start lines and in the results pages, she said, and having a strong voice on social media can increase value as much as winning.

Cain and Willis will be paid every two weeks, like other employees at Tracksmith. They will receive the same benefits and join the same Zoom calls.

The company, which mostly caters to amateur athletes, recently had 138 athletes run in the Olympic Marathon trials wearing a Tracksmith singlet. Matt Taylor, Tracksmith’s chief executive, said that yes, Cain and Willis were professional athletes who would be competing with the logo on their singlets, but that they were brought on as runners who “add a lot of value outside of running fast.”

The win-at-all-cost mentality has come further into scrutiny in recent years. Last month, for example, Maggie Haney, an elite gymnastics coach who was accused of verbally abusing and mistreating athletes, was suspended from the sport for eight years by U.S.A. Gymnastics after a weekslong disciplinary hearing.

“I feel like athletes lean into this indestructible character,” Cain said. “But unless you’re doing something really shady, no one nails every day of their life. You’re always going to have rough patches. I was somebody who was going down that path, and I feel very lucky I’ve been able to make a sharp turn to go in the other direction.”

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