Mary Cain’s slam on Nike sheds light on her year at University of Portland

By Kyle Garcia | November 7, 2019 8:36pm
Elite runner Mary Cain during fall 2014, her freshman year at University of Portland. She was running for Nike's controversial Oregon Project at the time,
Media Credit: Hannah Baade / The Beacon

When Mary Cain arrived at the University of Portland as an honors freshman in August 2014, she wanted to be a typical college student. Except she wasn’t.

She was one of the best young runners in the world, the 2013 USA Track and Field Youth Athlete of the Year, and holder of multiple national records. Legendary marathoner and running coach Alberto Salazar handpicked her to join Nike’s Oregon Project, an elite team of world-class runners including Olympic medalists Mo Farrah and Galen Rupp.

As The Beacon reported in a profile of Cain in 2014, “Cain does many of the same things as her classmates, but with the added stress of training as a professional runner for Nike.”

Thursday, in a video appearing in the New York Times, Cain revealed how stressful it really was. 

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

by Hannah Baade / The Beacon

Salazar and other coaches of the Nike Oregon Project emotionally and physically abused her, she said. They told her to lose weight, weighed her in front of other runners and attempted to put her on birth control and diuretics to regulate her weight, according to Cain.

Cain said the constant regulation of her weight caused her to develop RED-S Syndrome, which caused her to lose her menstrual period for three years, which weakened her bone health. Cain broke five different bones during her time with the team.

Cain said the abuse also led to her having suicidal thoughts and started to cut herself. 

“Some people saw me cutting myself,” she said. “Nobody really did anything or said anything.”

Cain left the University of Portland after her freshman year in May 2015, returning to her home in Bronxville, New York. In the video, Cain talked about a race she struggled in that same month. She said Salazar slammed her in front of her teammates after the race, accusing her of gaining five pounds. 

That same night she told Salazar and their sports psychologist that she was cutting herself. “They just pretty much told me they wanted to go to bed,” she said. Cain left the team in 2016.

Mary Cain was an honors student at UP. She left at the university at the end of her freshman year in 2015 and graduated from Fordham University.

by Hannah Baade / The Beacon

Cain’s claims come as Salazar and Nike face repercussions for doping allegations from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The Oregon Project was disbanded in October after Salazar was banned for four years. 

Cain said she’s concerned Nike will bring the program back and simply rebrand it and put Salazar’s assistants in charge.

“Secondly, we need more women in power,” Cain said. “Part of me wonders if I had worked with more female psychologists, nutritionists and even coaches where I’d be today. I got caught in a system designed by and for men which destroys the bodies of young girls.”

The New York Times reports that Nike did not respond to a request for comment and that Salazar denied Cain’s claims in an email to the Times.

Cain, now 23, lives in New York. In May, she competed in her first race in two and a half years. She won.

Kyle Garcia is the Sports editor at The Beacon. He can be reached at