Former Nike Oregon Project (NOP) athlete Mary Cain has switched allegiances from the USA to Ireland. This was made official on February 16, 2024.

Cain, formerly coached by Alberto Salazar, in Portland, OR moved back to her parent’s home in New York City after Salazar received a coaching ban and Nike closed down the NOP. Since then, she has almost disappeared from the sport, however, has raced a little and attempted the sport of triathlon.

The prodigy

Cain won the 2014 World Junior Championships in the 3000-metre event. She was the youngest athlete to represent the US at the World Athletics Championships after competing in the 2013 Moscow meet at age 17. Cain broke at least seven US national high school records. She also took the world 1000m indoor junior record with her performance of 2:35.80 at the New Balance Grand Prix in Feb. 2014.

She went on to set several North American junior indoor and outdoor records in the 1000m, 1500m, mile (1609m), and two-mile events.

Screen capture from op-ed published by the New York Times

Between 2016 and 2019 she did not compete, however, put on her spikes for two indoor meets in 2020, where she ran at the Michigan University U-M Track in Ann Arbor, MI clocking 4:42.78 in the indoor mile on Feb. 1. Twenty-seven days later, she clocked a 9:07.51 3000m performance at Boston University.

There is some speculation that Cain may be using Irish citizenship to avoid paying US taxes. Apparently, this is assumed due to the settlement of her lawsuit against Salazar and Nike, but it is doubtful. World Athletics has published her new citizenship, therefore it is likely the change is related to competition; she has relatives who live in Ireland, which could make the citizenship process quick. Whether she is fit again is anyone’s guess. However, with the spring outdoor track season on the horizon and the Paris Olympic Games just months away, the now 27-year-old middle-distance specialist may be rounding into form.

The suit

In late 2019, the New York Times published a video op-ed with Cain speaking. In the video, she directed her poor performances to the coaching by Salazar. She claimed that he and his assistants arbitrarily set unreasonable weight targets down to 114 pounds. Cain alleged Salazar often shamed her and pushed her in training. The heavy training allegedly led her to develop RED-S. The results of which involved her menstrual cycle stopping at least three years. During this time she experienced five bone fractures. Subsequently, the now-defunct Sports Illustrated Magazine published several accounts of fellow NOP athletes corroborating the story.

On Oct. 11, 2021, Cain filed a $20 million lawsuit against Salazar and Nike. She accused them of inflicting emotional and physical abuse. On Nov. 27, 2023, a settlement was reached between the defendants and Cain. The terms of the settlement were not released to the public.

Irish middle-distance records

The Irish record in the outdoor 800m event is 1:59.27. The 1000m record, although not a global championships event, is 2:31.06. The 1500m record is 3:55.87. The 3000m record is 8:21.64.

Cain has run 1:59.51, 2:35.80, 4:04.62 and 8:58.48, respectively. Although not quite at the same level as Ciara Mageean and Sonia O’Sullivan who split the aforementioned Irish records, Cain was just 16 and 17 when she set her bests.

The Paris Olympic standards are 1:59.30 (800m), 4:02.50 (1500m), or 4:20.90 (mile for the 1500m). Cain set her bests before the super shoe era began in earnest. If she did get herself into a similar condition – being mature and wearing super spikes – who knows how well she could perform? But, she will have to train hard. Riding on one’s coattails never works out to benefit the runner.