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Mary Cain raises women’s health issues in harrowing account of her time with Alberto Salazar

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In 2013, Mary Cain was the talk of the track and field world. The teenager with flowing hair and an irrepressible smile shattered high school records and became the youngest woman to qualify for a world championship 1,500m final. Surely Olympic glory and global athletics stardom would be next.

Instead, Cain’s performances dropped off. She had a solid year in 2014, winning the 3,000m world junior title, the Millrose Games mile and the U.S. 1,500m indoor title, and she took second in the U.S. 1,500m final. But in 2015, she was less competitive. Her struggles continued in 2016, and she finished 11th in her first attempt to make an Olympic team.

She enrolled in Fordham, near her Bronxville, N.Y., home, and took pre-med classes while dealing with a variety of injuries. In the last three years, her IAAF bio lists no results.

“Whatever happened to Mary Cain?” became a popular question among those who follow track and field, even casually.

On Thursday, in a devastating New York Times video, she answered. Her physical and mental health were destroyed — she claims, at the hands of Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar, who contacted the Cain family while she was in high school to say he wanted to coach the prodigy.

“I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever,” Cain said. “Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”

Cain says she was told to lose weight — “thinner, and thinner, and thinner” — in order to get better, even to the point of taking birth control pills and diuretics. That staff, she points out, was all male. 

The problem was well-hidden. A March 2015 magazine piece, also in The New York Times, suggested Salazar was treating Cain carefully. The goal was to avoid ailments such as the “female athlete triad,” also called RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) syndrome, in which an eating disorder and the lack of a menstrual period are related to a weaker bone structure.

“Not eating appropriately for the amount of energy an athlete expends is really the root of this syndrome,” University of Wisconsin orthopedic surgeon Andrea Spiker said in an RED-S fact sheet that says missing just three cycles is a warning sign.

Cain said she missed her period for three years. And broke five different bones.

The mental toll was worse. She had suicidal thoughts and began cutting herself. She said she brought the latter to Salazar’s attention in May 2015, a couple of months after the magazine piece painted a rosy picture but a few hours after Salazar yelled at her in front of many athletes and meet officials gathered in a tent during a thunderstorm. Her parents soon brought her home to New York.

“I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics any more,” Cain said. “I was just trying to survive.”

But she hid the depths of her problems. As recently as last year, Cain talked with Runner’s World about building back up to run in the outdoor season and expressed no regrets about her career choices.

The author of the 2015 magazine piece, Elizabeth Weil, says today she wishes she had spotted some red flags.

“I’ve thought a lot about the 2015 Mary Cain story I wrote over the years,” Weil said on Twitter. “[Because] in hindsight I got it so wrong.”

Former Nike runner Shalane Flanagan, who last month described her training group as distinctly separate from Salazar’s, also wondered aloud if she should have noticed the problems, reaching out to Cain on Twitter.

“I had no idea it was this bad,” Flanagan wrote. “I’m so sorry @runmarycain that I never reached out to you when I saw you struggling. I made excuses to myself as to why I should mind my own business. We let you down. I will never turn my head again.”

Coincidentally, soon after the 2015 magazine piece ran, Salazar’s program fell under heavy scrutiny. In June, the BBC and ProPublica reported that the Nike Oregon Project was under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. That investigation finally ended with a four-year ban for Salazar.

One of the former Oregon Project athletes who spoke out in the BBC/ProPublica piece, Kara Goucher, told NBC OlympicTalk she had hoped Cain would be treated better because of her age but that Cain simply wound up isolated.

“She was all alone,” Goucher said. “She had no one to support her.”

Officially, the Nike Oregon Project has been shut down, but several of the coaches and athletes are still working together. The athletes Salazar trained are a who’s who of distance running, including Galen Rupp, Jordan Hasay and Mo Farah. None of the athletes have been charged with doping, and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart said this week he sees little reason for the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate any further.

Now Cain wants to change the system.

“Young girls’ bodies are being ruined by an emotionally and physically abusive system,” Cain said.

Goucher agrees: “I think this is a broader problem of the way we treat women athletes as objects instead of humans.”

Cain gave a road map for reform: Change the culture at Nike, including a closer look at the coaches who worked with Salazar and continue to work with Nike athletes, and put more women in power.

And she says her running career isn’t over.

“Part of the reason I’m doing this now is I want to end this chapter, and I want to start a new one,” Cain said.

Left ambiguous is whether that statement applies only to herself or to her sport and sports in general.

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Beach volleyball player’s dog becomes social media sensation

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Norwegian beach volleyball player Mathias Berntsen‘s dog, Kiara, captivated social media this weekend.

A video of Kiara peppering with Berntsen and a pair across the net on a grass field spread from Berntsen’s Instagram across platforms. Kiara now has 12,000 Instagram followers, more than twice the total of Berntsen.

Berntsen, 24, is one half of Norway’s second-best beach volleyball team.

He and partner Hendrik Mol are ranked 45th in the world and well outside the Tokyo Olympic picture (24 teams go to the Games), but could get in the mix depending on how qualification is amended once sports resume.

Berntsen and his cousin Mol are part of a group called the Beach Volley Vikings. Mol’s younger brother, Anders, and family friend Christian Sorum are the world’s top-ranked team (profiled here).

MORE: Beach volleyball players fly to Australia, learn event is canceled

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FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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