Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Very Old Problem Rears Its Ugly Head

There has been a lot of talk on social media about Mary Cain recently since she courageously opened up about her experiences as an athlete with Salazar and NOP. Cain joined Salazar's program in 2013 when she was just a teenager. Though she's more of a standout in terms of her performance and will always be remembered as one of the best young female track athletes ever, her backstory is like many others.

The unrelenting attention on her weight and the excessive pressure that Mary experienced is nothing new. Unfortunately, we live in a society with a mad focus on body, especially women's bodies. In the sports world, it's even more extreme, though men are not immune to negative comments by coaches and peers. In Mary's case, though, she, a young girl, was surrounded by older men associated with the program and a coach who was, according to her and several members of her team, overly critical and overly focused on her weight at the expense of her performance, her health, and her overall well-being. 

What's upsetting to see in the aftermath of all of this is that some people on social media have turned the conversation into a debate about what a healthy racing weight is for her. Guess what? It's none of your fucking business. This is one problem of many and reinforces warped ideas around the female athlete's body. It's not up to anyone else to decide what's healthy, and comparing her or any young athlete to other adult runners who are leaner or heavier serves zero purpose, none. Who knows what methods people use to stay lean and fit, and with all the doping allegations being dropped, I'm sure a lot of "healthy" lean examples aren't quite. What one person weighs has no relevance to what's healthy for someone else.

This is her life, her health, and her body. Her rules now. Nobody else's. If a runner goes from running well and feeling good to a cycle of missed periods, broken bones, and poor health, there's clearly something wrong, and weight loss isn't the answer to an improvement in performance at that point.

Another upsetting result of Mary coming forward are the people who feel it necessary to shift the focus to another cause. This is selfish and also doesn't solve this particular issue. There are plenty of topics that deserve their time in the spotlight, but don't kick Mary to the side in order to step in her place. Take your turn at the appropriate time.

Since Mary spoke out, Salazar and Nike have both made statements that basically get into victim blaming territory, but even if you look at one of Salazar's more recent comments, he outs himself as a coach who absolutely failed his athlete. He responded to her allegations by stating,  “Mary at times struggled to find and maintain her ideal performance and training weight." As her coach, if that was the case, it was his responsibility to make sure his athlete wasn't struggling in any area. An athlete's weight shouldn't be a constant struggle to maintain if she's healthy and supported in the right ways.  

More importantly, though, his focus should have been on her overall heath, her longevity in the sport, and her training, not an arbitrary number on the scale that reflects nothing about her strength and wellness. She was a teenager. He was supposed to protect her, not burden her and then break her.  

I know people mean well, but the focus on Mary right now shouldn't be on a comeback or even running, really. She already established herself as one of the greatest on the track. Why do people insist she do more? If she wants it, the opportunity is there, but her message is about SO much more. This is about the abuse of power and the enormous pressures heaped on very young athletes. This is about a broken system that has been a mess for many, many years. 

What I hope people realize with this door opening is that Mary is one of many runners who had to try to survive in an unhealthy environment. When I first started telling my story, I was generally supported, especially by friends and family, but still faced people, not just men, who denied the prevalence of these kinds of issues in the running world or suggested that people like me were weak or trying to cheat in some way. It's odd to see some of these same people act as advocates now. I'm sure that's a good thing, but I can honestly say it's strange to see.

Some people insist that if it didn't happen to them, it must not be that big a problem. I and others have faced put downs and digs about mental health and eating disorders and a lot of speculation about our current state of health based on our pasts, which puts even more attention where it shouldn't be, on our bodies. It's equally upsetting that people who are healthy and lean are pushed into a corner of feeling like they have to defend themselves against accusations. This is all the result of attention being focused in all the wrong areas. 

But things are changing. There will always be opportunists who jump on situations like this in order to step out on center stage, and we may never reach a point where women will have the freedom to be whatever size is comfortable and healthy for them without judgment. More and more, though, I see genuine concern and care from the masses and people coming forward asking how they can help, how they can make a difference and support a change.  

In a way, this has become the runners version of a #MeToo movement, and it's heartbreaking to see so many athletes come forward with stories of their own. Think of all the high school, college, and club programs that promote or promoted the same kind of unhealthy environment Mary endured. Little comments coaches make can have long-lasting effects. But it's not just the running world that's flawed. Our society is deeply in need of repair when it comes to how people view women and our bodies. It's not just women, either, but there's a relentless focus on the female body that's terribly unhealthy. Salazar and the people at Nike are products of our society, but that's no excuse. What they have done to so many athletes is awful, and the way they are handling the backlash now is inexcusable. 

If the allegations are so troubling,  as Nike suggested, why not simply state that an investigation will take place? What, exactly, is Nike implying with that little jab about Mary not speaking out at the time and possibly contemplating a return to her coach this year? She already stated why she stayed silent until now, and LOTS of people go back to or feel compelled to go back to abusive situations.

This has been an emotional time for may of us who have lived with the same kinds of pressures, both internal and external. But now is the perfect time to talk about change and how to make it safer for young athletes to achieve their goals while maintaining health, both emotional and physical. 

In times of distress, they say to look to the helpers. In my own case, when I'm feeling down or disturbed about events in the running world, I look to people like Diane Israel, Bobby McGee, Rachael Steil, Melody Fairchild, Kara Goucher, the Roots Running Project, and my many mentors and friends for guidance. Speaking of looking to people for leadership, a friend and incredible inspiration to me and many others in the running community and in general, Tonia, wrote a spot-on blog post about the trouble with youth sports. Please take the time to read it. Things need to change. 

I don't know if it's the case or people were merely speculating, but I'm glad to know others agree that the sole solution to fixing this mess is not simply hiring female coaches. That might help to an extent, but female coaches can be just as abusive. This is a systemic and even a cultural issue, and it will take a lot of effort to fix it. 

What's important, in addition to providing more education around the topic, is offering every athlete access to a group of individuals not necessarily associated with their team that, in addition to the coach, would include a sports psychologist, a dietitian, some kind of advocate, and a physical therapist. This might be impossible financially for small programs, but even having someone from the outside who would be responsible for checking in on athletes periodically would be better than nothing. There just needs to be a way for young athletes to have the freedom to speak up about their experiences with their coaches in a safe environment.

As I hinted at earlier, this has stirred up a lot of emotions for me, so I'm sure I'm not addressing everything I would like and maybe addressing things in a way that's not completely coherent. Still, I felt the need to put at least some thoughts down.

Because I wish I could help more but don't exactly know how, I will just reiterate what others have been saying. I'm here if anyone needs an ear or some support. I've been through it, and I want others to know that they are not alone. 

While Mary's message is about more than eating issues, I'm still going to offer a free copy of my eating disorder recovery handbook to anyone interested through the end of January 2020. 
The coupon code is:
and the link is:

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