American runner Mary Cain was destined for global stardom until her youth, her health and her career were ruined by a Nike athletics program that was recently shut down in disgrace.
Cain, now 23, has courageously told her story to the New York Times as part of an investigation into the Nike Oregon Project.
Her allegations are extraordinary.
As a 16-year-old Cain was the fastest girl in America. She was identified as a future Olympic gold medallist and headhunted for the program by its head coach, the world famous Alberto Salazar.
It was a call that Cain couldn't ignore. Salazar had an outstanding reputation and he told her she was "the most talented athlete he'd ever seen".
She left school and joined Salazar and Nike's flagship athletics program expecting to be nurtured and shaped into a world class professional athlete.
Instead she claims she was forced into a brutal regime of physical and emotional abuse.
"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," Cain said.
"This Nike team was the top running program in the country and yet we had no certified sports psychologist, there was no certified nutritionist, it was really just a bunch of people who were Alberto's friends. So when I went to anybody for help they would always just tell me the same thing, and that was to listen to Alberto.
"Alberto was constantly trying to get me to lose weight. He created an arbitrary number, 114 pounds, and he would usually weigh me in front of my teammates and publicly shame me if I wasn't hitting weight.
"He wanted to give me birth control pills and diuretics to lose weight; a lot of which isn't allowed in track and field. I felt terrible during this time.
"It reached a point where I was on the starting line and I'd lost the race before I started because in my head all I was thinking was, you know, not the time I was going to hit but the number on the scale I saw earlier that day."
Cain fell into a cycle of physical pain and psychological torture as her running career was derailed.
Convinced that a lighter frame would enhance her performance, Cain continued on a path of dangerous weight loss which led to a "biology lesson I learned the hard way."
"When young women are forced to push themselves beyond what they're capable of at a certain age they're at risk of developing RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports); suddenly you realise you've lost your period for a couple of months," she said.
"And then a couple of months becomes a couple of years and in my case it was a total of three. If you're not getting your period you're not going to have the necessary levels of estrogen you need to maintain strong bone health and in my case I broke five different bones."
Cain goes on to detail her moment of clarity in 2015 when, as a 19-year-old, she was publicly humiliated by Salazar following a sub-par performance in a race.
Her voice becomes shaky as she recalls her downward spiral that was brought to a head by that moment.
"I felt so scared, I felt so alone and I felt so trapped and I started to have suicidal thoughts, I started to cut myself, some people saw me cutting myself and nobody did anything," Cain said.
"So in 2015 I ran this race and I didn't run super well and afterwards there was a thunderstorm going on, half the track was under one tent and Alberto yelled at me in front of everybody else at the meet.
"And he told me that I clearly gained five pounds before the race.
"It was also that night that I told Alberto and our sports psych that I was cutting myself and they pretty much told me they just wanted to go to bed."
It was horrifying for Cain and ultimately it was the trigger that led her to flee the program.
"And I think for me that was my kick in the head where I was like 'This system is sick.' Even for my parents in some ways once I finally vocalized to them, I mean they were horrified," she said.
"They bought me the first plane ride home. And they were like 'Get on that flight, get the hell out of there!' I wasn't even trying to make the Olympics anymore, I was just trying to survive.
"So I made the painful choice and I quit the team."
Cain's harrowing story was published by the Times yesterday (AEDT), just over a month after Salazar was suspended for four years by the US Anti-Drug Agency (USADA) for "multiple anti-doping rule violations".
Salazar's ban almost immediately triggered the shutdown of the Nike Oregon Project, which coincided with the announcement that Nike's CEO Mark Parker will step down from the role in January.
Still Salazar denies Cain's claims, writing an email to the Times which said that he supported her health and welfare.
That denial and Nike's silence about the broader issues raised by Cain's story has led her to fear that a similar program to the Oregon Project will be revived by Nike, putting the health and well-being of more young women at risk.
"They're not acknowledging that there is 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," Cain said.
" … In track and field Nike is all-powerful. They control the top coaches, athletes, races, even the governing body. You can't just fire a coach and eliminate a program and pretend the problem is solved.
"My worry is that Nike's merely going to rebrand the old program and put Alberto's old assistant coaches in charge. Secondly, we need more women in power. Part of me wonders if I had worked with more female nutritionists, psychologists, and even coaches, where I'd be today.
"I got caught in a system designed by and for men which destroys the bodies of young girls. Rather than force young girls to fend for themselves, we have to protect them."
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