Extraordinary athlete, ordinary Pilot

By The Beacon | September 11, 2014 4:17am
Mary Cain reacts to setting U.S.A. High School National record in the 800 meters with a time of 1:59.51 at the second day of the Prefontaine Classic. (Mason Trinca/Emerald)

Age: 18
Hometown: Bronxville, N.Y.
Major: Undeclared (Honors Program)
Twitter: @runMaryCain

By Molly McSweyn |

Jane Austen classics fill Mary Cain’s bookcase, and “Game of Thrones” can be seen playing on her television as she lifts weights. An incoming freshman, Cain does many of the same things as her classmates, but with the added stress of training as a professional runner for Nike.

On Nov. 20, 2013, Cain signed with the Nike Oregon Project to launch her professional career. Shortly after in 2014, she took gold with a 8:58.48 time in the 3000 meter event at the World Junior Championships in Athletics. The fastest women’s time for this event has stood since 1993 when Wang Junxia, a Chinese runner, set the record of 8:06.11.

At 9-months-old, Cain, a Bronxville, New York native, had already mastered walking. There was no time for crawling.

Although Cain’s parents both ran recreationally, she was not raised in a running family. Surrounded by three loving sisters, Cain began her athletic career as a swimmer. However, it wasn’t long until her parents noticed something different about her.

“My mom recognized when I was two that I was actually gonna be really fast,” Cain said.

Her speed and athleticism could have been utilized in many sports, but running was always on her mind.

“Back in 2008, my dream was to be an Olympic swimmer, but I always kind of knew in the back of my mind that I would be a runner,” Cain said.

By the time she was in 7th grade, it wasn’t just her family who noticed her speed. And she just kept getting better.

In 2010, Cain was the NYS Class C Cross Country Champion in New York.

Cain decided to forego a college running career because she did not want to miss the opportunity to be a professional runner right now.

“When I went through the decision it was between U of O [University of Oregon], which meant competing for the NCAA, and going to UP, which would mean going pro, and I guess what it really boiled down to was the idea of having no regrets,” Cain said. “In my mind, I had this amazing opportunity to be signed and trained by Alberto. I realized that if I wanted to be a runner someday, and I had the opportunity to do it now, why not take it.”

Being a professional athlete prevents her from running for a university. That means on The Bluff, Cain isn’t considered a student athlete.

“If I was at U of O [University of Oregon] or something, theres a lot of people, and like if I did really well in running, people would probably know who I am, but I’d be ‘Mary Cain the runner,’” Cain said. “I feel like coming here I can kind of be ‘Mary Cain the student.’”

Mary Cain in her dorm room as a University of Portland freshman (2014)

by Hannah Baade / The Beacon

While she can’t run for UP, Cain has found a way to be involved with the running program as a volunteer coach for the cross country team. She ultimately chose UP not for her professional development as a runner, but because she saw an opportunity for personal development.

“I come from a small town,” Cain said, “I kind of liked having a smaller school. I'm personally Catholic, so its really nice to have the church right on campus. [I] wanted to go to a good school, a well-respected school, and this just really matched all those requirements.”

In 2012, two years after she claimed the Class C Cross Country title in New York, world-famous runner and coach Alberto Salazar took Cain under his wing.

“The real reason Alberto took me on was because he watched my race, and said, ‘Your arm is so bad, and you're running so fast that if I just fixed that darn arm, you would go really fast,”’ Cain said.

Salazar is a retired long-distance runner who ran for the University of Oregon and won the individual NCAA Cross Country Championship in 1978. A year later he won the 1979 USA Cross Country Championships.

He won three consecutive New York City Marathons from from 1980-1982.

The legendary Salazar is head of the Nike Oregon Project, where he trains and mentors champions, such as Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah and silver medalist Galen Rupp.

As her coach, Salazar is Cain’s supporter and friend.

“I want to run well for him,” Cain said.

With the help of Salazar, Cain continued to improve her speed. In 2012, she ran the 800-meter dash in the United States Olympic Trials, placing 18th. In the same year, at the World Junior Championships in Athletics, she broke the American high school girls’ record by over three seconds in the 1500 meter dash with a 4:11.01 time.

In 2013, at the Oxy Distance Classic, Cain broke her own record in the 1500 meter dash with a 4:04.62 time. A month later, she set an American junior and high school record in the 800 meter dash. With her time of 1:59.51, Cain became the first American youth to run the event in under two minutes.

Cain’s speed hasn't slowed. She was named the Youth Athlete of the Year by USA Track and Field in 2013.

“At the pure end of the day,” Cain said, “I run because I absolutely love it,”

Raluca Gosman, a freshman biology major and neuroscience minor, recalled meeting Cain in their honors program orientation. It took at least three conversations for Gosman to begin to understand who Cain is in the athletic world.

“She was super humble about it,” Gosman said. “She totally deserves a spot in the honors program.”

With her rigorous 2-3 hour training sessions a day, Cain has to be on top of everything. Cain is a runner first, but she wants to have a true college experience as well. She hasn’t officially declared a major, but is considering chemistry.

“If you just replace the parties with running, I’m a normal college student,” Cain said.

Molly McSweyn is a sports reporter for The Beacon. You can reach her at mcsweyn18@up.edu.