“There are women here nearly twice her age, being left in her wake!” shouted the announcer as 16-year-old Mary Cain won the USA indoor mile final, coasting through the finish line with a huge lead. Later that year, she became the youngest qualifier for the 1,500-meter world championships final. Six of the ten fastest ever 1,500-meter times in high school track and field belong to her. Cain ranks in the top five in the 800-meter, 1,500-meter, mile, 3,000-meter, two-mile, and 5,000-meter runs. In four of those six events, she is the fastest high school student ever.
After her illustrious high school career, Cain decided to join the Nike Oregon Project (NOP), which is considered the best track and field team in the world. Cain said that when she got the call from the NOP head coach, Alberto Salazar, asking her to join the team, “it was a dream come true.” However, when she got there, it was far from what she expected.
She didn’t have her period for multiple years and her bones became weak. She had suicidal thoughts and began cutting herself. Today, Mary Cain is 23 and has raced just once in the past three years.
Her career, health, and future were destroyed by Salazar and the culture of body-shaming women and girls that he perpetuated. Cain recounts that when she arrived in Oregon, the coaching staff, made up entirely of men, concluded that for her to improve, she needed to lose weight. The coaches didn’t say that she needed to be in better shape in general, but that she needed to hit an almost random, not scientifically-validated weight of 114 pounds. Not only did Salazar force her to eat less and take birth control pills and diuretics, but if she was not at the set weight on the scale in front of her teammates, he would publicly humiliate and harass her. Another NOP athlete, Amy Yoder Begley, was kicked off the team after she came in sixth in the 10,000-meter event at the 2011 USA Track and Field Championships, with Salazar telling her she was fat and that she had “the biggest butt on the starting line.”
It would be wrong to say that weight plays no role in track and field; it does. If you weigh less, you will be able to run faster, but weight is not a foolproof measure of fitness. You can be healthy, fast, and strong at all different weights, with all different body types. Cain’s success should not have been determined by the shape of her body, or the number on the scale. It should have been determined by how fast she could run.
At Berkeley High School, we know that body-shaming is a widespread problem, not just in sports. Girls are wrongly taught from a young age that they have to reach an unattainable, photoshopped body. Diets are pushed on women and losing weight is celebrated and is seen as a great achievement. Kids as young as fifth grade are graded on their BMI score, a metric known for its inability to show someone’s health, but instead their weight and body type alone. The fact that the fittest and fastest woman in the country, at the most esteemed program in the world, was being harassed to the point of self-harm and temporarily quitting the sport shows just how far-reaching this issue is.