SPIKES meets the New York teenager who went from swimming wannabe to member of the world’s coolest running club. Mary Cain explains why she turned pro, and why she wouldn’t mind if coach Alberto Salazar broke her spikes before a race.
“To be honest, I’m still kind of new to the track world,” Mary Cain tells a roomful of journalists on her first day as a professional athlete. “I’m still a bit of a baby, walking around with all these amazing athletes.”
She’s taking pretty big steps for a baby. In an extraordinary junior career, Cain has re-arranged the record books over 1000m, 1500m, 3000m, one-mile and two-miles. She capped a dream season by qualifying for the Moscow 2013 World Championships, where she became the youngest athlete ever to compete in the final of the women’s 1500m.
Right now, 17 and-a-half-year-old Cain is perched on a big red sofa at the IAAF athlete’s hotel in Monaco, facing the world’s press for the first time as a professional. In the back row sit her parents, next to new manager Ricky Simms: the PACE Sports Management super-suit behind Usain Bolt.
You could be forgiven for thinking Mary might be a little bit nervous. You’d be wrong. She looks about as timid as Bolt does on the start line.
“Ultimately, I decided to go pro because I just feel that makes the most sense for me,” says Cain, explaining her decision to forgo a collegiate career. “My attitude is: I have had such an amazing year this year, just based on the fun of it. It’s so exciting. I’ve met so many great people. I’ve got such a good team. I just have so much fun!”
Hard work was never supposed to be quite this much fun. Last season, Cain was coached by John Henwood in New York, with a training programme set by Alberto Salazar, the man behind world and Olympic double-distance champion Mo Farah.
This year she’s enrolling at Salazar’s school of running: the Oregon Project, alongside Farah. She’ll train on a partially forested running track constructed from the soles of old Nike sneakers, and will have a $70,000 underwater treadmill and recovery-boosting cryochamber at her disposal.
Cain’s new track pals (L-R): Alberto Salazar, Cam Levins, Mo Farah and Galen Rupp.
“The plan is to be with everyone else, with the training and great coaching,” she says. “I love the group I’m with: the Oregon project. They’re a great group of people.
“It probably will be more intense,” she adds. “It’ll be a little bit different, but at the same time, last year, I treated myself as a pro that didn’t get paid.
“I think Alberto handled it the same way, because of the way we talk and stuff like that.”
Cain recalls her 1500m heat in Moscow, where she needed a pretty strong late kick to ensure automatic qualification. “After the heats, we had a pretty intense talk, like: ‘you’re not supposed to do that’. Oh my God. He was yelling. I felt so bad – he was so freaked out!
“I’m really glad that I made those mistakes, so going forward I’ll never do that again. He [Salazar] said: ‘I know I’m hard on you. But that’s what you have to be to get on that next level.’”
Some might be intimidated by Salazar’s no-nonsense approach, but she thrives on it. “I’m a big fan of Michael Phelps,” says Cain, who watched the Athens and Beijing Olympics under the impression she might be competing in the pool, rather than the track, by 2016.
“Michael would get up there and he’d be like: ‘yeah my coach broke my goggles before this race, so that I would have to learn how to deal with it’. A lot of stuff like that I just thought was awesome. Someone needs to break my spikes before I go out on a run!”
Elite field: Cain competes in the world 1500m semi-final in Moscow.
At present, 1500m feels like her “perfect distance” – yet she is open to a range of events, from 800m to 5000m and could compete at both the world indoors in Poland in March, and the world junior champs in Oregon in July.
Off the track, she’s just a hard-working schoolgirl from a close-knit community where she’s lived all her life. “Everybody knows everybody: first name, last name,” she says. “In a lot of young grades it’s really sweet. Little kindergartners say: ‘You’re Mary!’ But in the older grades they’re kind of like: ‘whatever’.
“I’m a very competitive person, and academically I’m really intense as well,” she adds. “All my friends are in calculus class, and they’re like: ‘why are you here with us?’”
There’s an easy answer. This confident, down-to-earth girl has the focus and drive to be a huge success – but knows the importance of doing the maths. And having fun, too.