Mary Cain: “Creating a Super Healthy, Positive Dynamic is My Biggest Priority”
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The former teen prodigy is taking her toxic experiences in sport to make it better for other women and girls through Atalanta NYC.
“Although it’s been overwhelming and a lot to do, it’s been so rewarding going through this entrepreneurial process and knowing that I’m going to ultimately walk the walk instead of just talk the talk around all the advocacy work I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Cain, now 25, said in an interview with Women’s Running earlier in June.
Atalanta is part pro women’s running team and part service organization. The women who are recruited to the team won’t sign traditional athlete contracts, they’ll become employees of the nonprofit organization, taking roles that further their careers after they’re finished competing. They’ll also each serve as mentors to underserved girls in the New York community, for whom Atalanta is creating educational and movement-based programs.
“I have seen all the stats and it’s staggering how much of a dropout rate there is for girls in sport,” Cain said. “A lot of the experiences I underwent as a young athlete unfortunately are systemic.”
Cain joined the Nike Oregon Project under Alberto Salazar, foregoing NCAA eligibility in 2013 to sign a pro contract. She moved from Bronxville, New York, to Portland, Oregon, at age 17, a national high school record holder and the youngest to ever represent the U.S. at the world championships. She came forward in a 2019 New York Times op-ed alleging emotional abuse by Salazar, who she said pressured her to lose weight and publicly shamed her if she didn’t, in a win-at-all-costs team culture.
Salazar has denied the allegations and is appealing a temporarily ban from coaching by the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
Ultimately Cain said she suffered five stress fractures, didn’t menstruate for three years, and suffered depression that led to cutting herself. She officially left the team in 2016 and finished college at Fordham University, earning a degree in business administration. She’s now a community manager at the running apparel brand Tracksmith and is continuing to get back to pro running, too.
“I was lucky to come from a privileged background, one where I was able to pull myself out of it,” Cain said. “I was able to work with the doctors I needed to see and to continue my college education and ultimately find a career path.”
Cain knows that not all girls would have had the resources to emerge on the other side—and aims to prevent these kinds of situations altogether through the Atalanta. The programs are based on the three pillars of education, community, and movement. And the programs encompass the pro team, the community (membership-based) team, and the youth team, open to girls ages 12-20.