Mary Cain Reconsidered, should young athletes go pro?

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I was reading a fine piece by our friend at LetsRun.com, Robert Johnson. Robert was writing about a podcast edited and produced by Kyle Merber and Alexi Papas titled Bookclubtracklub.com. I love the idea ( and love that they are discussing Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince). Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a quite colorful character, flying mail flights prior to the opening of WW2. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, fighting for the Free French forces, disappeared over the Meditteranean sea in July 1944, and presumed to have died.The Little Prince has been published in 300 plus languages. It is more than a children's book, reminding me of C.S. Lewis' seven book set, The Chronicles of Narnia.

AO-Winter2013_FC-thumb-500x669-8492.jpgMary Cain on Winter 2013 cover of Athletes Only

Before I write on Mary Cain, one more suggestion to Kyle and Alexi. They might like Stories of God, by Ranier Marie Rilke, seven stories for children to understand the meaning of God. Written in 1899, over seven nights, Rilke was most profound and, when, as a junior in high school, I read this book, I began my life long fascination with Rilke.

So, back from that digression.

Mary Cain is a fine athlete. In 2014, Mary went professional (after her appearance at the 2013 World Championships). Mary Cain was a fun young teenager, and she had serious running skills. Alberto Salazar, the co-founder and coach of the Nike Oregon Distance Project, was quite impressed by the young athlete and began to advise her.

Mary Cain became one of those athletes who choose to go professional as a high schooler, a very small percentage of athletes who go from the 1.4 million high school boys and girls in track & cross country, skip the 130,000 young men and women in college track and cross country (including community college), and go professional, among the estimated several thousand athletes making from a few thousand to several million for their athletic prowess.

Mary Cain became a darling of the media as a star in her high school years and her record setting running was chronicled. Ms. Cain's racing and fast times impressed, setting outdoor records from 800m (1:59.51, June 1 2013 HSR), 1,500m (4:04.62, May 17, 2013 HSR and NJR), 3000m (8:58.48, HSR, July 24, 2014), 5000 meters ( 15:45.46, June 13, 2013 HSR). Her indoor records included the WJR for 1000m of 2:35.80 (February 8, 2014), 4:06.63 for 1,500m (enroute to mile, US NJR, January 24, 2014), Mile of 4:24.11 ( US NJR, January 24, 2018), US NJR, WYB, and 3000m of 9:04.51, Feb. 2, 2018, enroute to a 2 mile of 9:38.68, USNJR and HR.

Cain_MaryFHL1-nbGP14-thumb-500x333-8117.jpgMary Cain, 2014 NB Indoor GP, photo by PhotoRun.net

Mary Cain broke the 3000m record indoors of one Lynn Bjorklund, way back from 1975. Mary also ran best indoor mile, breaking record of Debbie Heald.

A running sensation, Mary was also the focal point of social media devotees. After a short time, however, the social media became vicious and also attacked as the cult of Alberto Salazar hatred grew in social media and the protection of anonymous comments gave those with little backbone the ability to critique with no responsibility for commentary. The cruelty must have taken a toll on Mary Cain, from her great heights, such as the fine 1,500m of 4:04.62 at the Oxy Classic on May 17, 2013, to when she did finished 8th in 2015 US Champs and 11th in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. She became the butt of jokes. It was not fair, but is is de rigeur of a world obsessed with anonymous social media.

Mary Cain dealt with injuries in 2015, 2016, and for the past two years, she has been away from the sport, going to school, and having a life. We think her time away from the sport was good.

Every time I see a young athlete going professional, from Sydney McLaughlin to Rai Benjamin, I worry a bit. I understand that the great money offered to family and the athlete. But, there comes a price. Some athletes, especially young women, rise, and then, perhaps, reach a limit to their improvement. It also happens with young men as well. Alan Webb, the AR holder in the mile, and a world class athlete from 800m to 10,000m, was criticized whether he ran well or ran not so well. Alan and his lovely wife have built a life and family as adults in the sport.

I wish Mary Cain every success. I am reminded of the piece that Cait Chock, a former AR high school record holder at 5000 meters, wrote about young women running professionally, when I think of young professional athletes.

The sport of athletics changed my life, and I was last on my teams as a freshman through my junior year. During the summer of 1974, I put in 1000 miles, running 14-18 miles a day, and discovered that I could run faster. Running kept me sane as my family moved from Saint Louis, Missouri to San Jose, California, and changing schools, from DeSmet Jesuit to Bellarmine College Pre. Running in college (Santa Clara University), I ran at a small university and was fortunate to have a fine coach. Knowing that my running was mine, and that getting a degree was the important goal. My modest running helped me appreciate the levels of excellence I write about each and every day. Running a 4:45 mile in high school helps you appreciate a high schooler who runs near 4 minutes. I recall watching late Eric Hulst run an 8:55 2 mile at the San Jose City Invitational in 1975. Each day, as I write and cover the sport, I am reminded of the athletes I learned about as I entered the sport: Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Dave Wottle, Mary Slaney, Peg Neppel, Ron Daws, Paavo Nurmi, Dutch Warmerdam, Bob Mathias, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Josef Plachy, Emil Zatopek.

There is still that golden state of athletics. Watching Michael Norman run 43.06 and Rai Benjamin hurdling 47.02 at the NCAAs was amazing, and I rewatch them on You Tube. The excitement in watching Shelby Houlihan build over the last several years to use her deadly gift, a fine kick, in Lausanne last week, was amazing.

But, what has taken me back is Noah Lyles. Noah and his brother, Josephus train with Lance Brauman at Pure Athletics Track Club in Claremont, Florida. Both made the finals at the USATF Outdoors. Noah won the 100 meters. His pure joy in his success, and his enjoyment of the social media now around the sport make me smile. Noah Lyles and Mike Norman shook hands and did an abridged hug after their 200 meters in race in Lausanne made me smile. Our sport can still show that competitors on the track, friends off, is possible.

I hope Mary Cain has some more fine races. Even if she does not, I hope that she can enjoy her athletics and her life, knowing that, for a period of time, she was one of the finest in the world, and perhaps, in her own time, it will be time to move on to another stage of her life. Mary Cain can handle it. She has a wonderful family, friends, coach and support team. It is one thing to run fast times, it is another to learn life lessons.

AO-Winter2013_FC.jpgAthetes Only cover, Winter 2013

To read articles we referenced in this piece, please see here:

Let's Run: Mary Cain Prepares return to track racing after 2 years away, by Robert Johnson (July 2018)

http://www.letsrun.com/news/2018/07/mature-mary-cain-prepares-return-track-racing-2-years-away-5-takeaways-cains-recent-podcast-appearance/

Breaking the Glass ceiling, the rise of young American female distance runners, by Cait Chock (April 2016)

http://www.runblogrun.com/2016/04/breaking-the-galss-ceiling-the-rise-of-young-american-female-distance-runners.html

In Pro Debut, Mary Cain showcases change and confidence, by Chris Lotsbom, Race Results Weekly (January 2014)

http://www.runblogrun.com/2014/01/in-pro-debut-cain-showcases-change-and-confidence-by-chris-lotsbom-rrw-1.html

Is this America's Best Track Meet, by Peter Abraham (Reported May 2017, original post May 2013)

http://www.runblogrun.com/2017/05/is-this-americas-best-track-meet.html

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