“By second grade, I was the fastest in my class. By third grade, I was the fastest in the grade. From there, it was just onwards and upwards,” says Mary Cain, 1500-meter finalist in the 2013 World Championships, three-time world junior champion, and one of Well+Good’s 2020 Changemakers. Last year, in a New York Times opinion piece, Cain spoke out against the harmful coaching practices used by Alberto Salazar, her trainer at Nike’s Oregon Project. At the end of her time there in 2016, she left the program, no longer one of the fastest runners in America, but dangerously thin, injured, and longing to fall back in love with the sport she once loved. Now, Cain says she’s determined to reinvent the world of women’s sports so that the pursuit of being the fastest doesn’t come at the high price of compromised mental and physical health.
“The reason my story really blew up is because it wasn’t just my story,” says Cain. “It was something that a woman in her 40s could understand. It was a story that a 12-year-old girl could understand.”
It’s true: In the wake of Cain going public in the Times piece, athletes at every level have responded with a resounding: Me, too. Olympians Amy Begley and Kara Goucher shared similar stories on social media, and Cain says that high school and college track athletes have flooded her inbox with accounts mirroring her struggles with amenorrhea, RED-S: missed periods and bone deterioration that are symptoms of overexercising.
In coming forward to speak about her experiences, Cain joined the ranks of top female athletes who are taking on the role of activist and using their platforms to catapult social issues outside of the sports arena. Team USA gymnast Aly Raisman, for example, has used her platform to drive awareness of sexual assault after being abused by her former doctor. “I’m really focused on what I’m saying [about my assault] and I recognize that I’m speaking on behalf of a lot of people, so I take that very seriously,” Raisman previously told Well+Good. “Sometimes it gives me a headache because I think so much about every word that I say.”
The United States women’s soccer team is another notable example of athletes becoming activists, as they’ve driven forward a conversation surrounding equal pay. Two-time Olympic soccer medalist Carli Lloyd has long been an advocate for salaries to be reflective of performance, not gender. “If I were a male soccer player who won a World Cup for the United States, my bonus would be $390,000. Because I am a female soccer player, the bonus I got for our World Cup victory last summer was $75,000,” Lloyd wrote in a 2016 New York Times essay. “We can’t right all the world’s wrongs, but we’re totally determined to right the unfairness in our field, not just for ourselves but for the young players coming up behind us and for our soccer sisters around the world.”
“The reason my story really blew up is because it wasn’t just my story. It was something that a woman in her 40s could understand. It was a story that a 12-year old girl could understand.” —Mary Cain
It’s Cain’s mission—with the help of other women like Raisman and Lloyd—to prevent the next generation of athletes from sacrificing their own health and passion for the sake of PRs. To do that, she believes that athletes and coaches need to work in tandem to create a universal social contract of appropriate behavior between coaches and athletes. This would look like a specific outline of what should be expected of both coaches and athletes that would clearly delineate what conduct pushes healthy boundaries. “Athletes as a whole need some sort of guidebook of what is considered okay or not okay—because sometimes the first line of defense in athlete protection is the athletes themselves,” Cain says.
While this is clearly needed at the pro level, where athletes train for hours a day, Cain believes that the curriculum should start at a young age and set a precedent for what athletes, coaches, and parents should expect. “Part of my advocacy now is for people to really feel comfortable talking about women’s health issues, and the fact that women’s development is different in terms of menstruation and other very real, physiological aspects of being a woman,” says Cain. That means knowing that it’s not normal to lose your period for an extended period of time and understanding that, physiologically, women are more prone to knee and ACL injuries than men—among other things.
While physical education programs across the country all adhere to guidelines set forth by the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE), no equivalent resource exists for coaches who instruct young athletes after school hours. And, what’s more pressing, there’s no official resource dedicated to educating coaches on the physiological and psychological needs of their female athletes in particular. “There are plenty of [coaches] who are genuinely trying their best to help an athlete, but maybe aren’t versed in what’s considered appropriate versus inappropriate behavior,” says Cain, referring to practices such as commenting specifically on a player’s physical appearance or offering advice outside their expertise. “Some sort of educational standards would provide them with that ability to know where to go and know right and wrong,” says Cain.
Over the next year, Cain will continue to lay the groundwork for a future in which female athletes of all ages and levels feel supported, fulfilled, and—most of all—joyful in their chosen form of movement. With the implementation of robust, female-inclusive training tactics and education, Cain wants to ensure that girls graduate with a knowledge about their bodies that lasts their whole lives.