Early Friday morning came the news that 17-year-old middle distance running prodigy Mary Cain had decided to bypass the unpaid grind of college track and field altogether and begin a professional career. Cain, who is a senior at Bronxville High School in New York, will relocate to Oregon at the end of the school year and continue to train with coach Alberto Salazar and a stable of training partners that includes Olympic distance medalists Mo Farah of Great Britain and Galen Rupp of the U.S.
Cain's decision was not unexpected. Last summer, after finishing her junior year in high school, Cain broke a total of six indoor and outdoor U.S. and junior records at distances from 800 meters through 5,000 meters. She finished second at the USA Track and Field national championships in Des Moines and became the youngest athlete ever to represent the U.S. at the world championships in Moscow. There, she reached the final and finished a tired 10th. In the wake of that summer there was frantic speculation among track nuts as to which -- if any -- college would snag Cain's skills. (The smart money was always on Oregon, if she chose to run for any college team at all).
In truth, there was little chance that Cain would ever run for a college team. "It took a while [to decide],'' wrote Cain Friday in an email. "I had very good options on the collegiate and professional side. I think I made my final decision in early November. But, deep down, I always knew this was the path I was going to take.''
Yet, ten years after then-teenaged California sprinter Allyson Felix bypassed college to start one of the most successful professional track and field careers of any U.S. athlete in history (one Olympic individual gold medal and two silvers; three world championships), the choice to jump from high school to international competition remains a novelty. Felix did not start a trend; until Friday, she was still the only elite -- or potentially elite -- U.S. high school track athlete to skip college and sign a professional contract. (Even Felix waffled, initially deciding to run for USC in 2003, before pulling back and becoming a student only).
Alan Webb enrolled at and ran for the University of Michigan in 2001 after a historic high school career in which he shattered Jim Ryun's prep record for the mile run. But Webb ran only one year in Ann Arbor before signing a professional contract and reuniting with his high school coach. Webb subsequently won the 1,500 meters at the 2004 Olympic Trials and in 2007 broke Steve Scott's U.S. record for the mile. Rupp straddled two worlds. He ran four years for Oregon, but was coached privately by Salazar, prompting four years of (unsupported) speculation that he was getting money from Nike, where Salazar is employed.
Most of the best track and field athletes in U.S. history ran first in college and then turned professional; much like NFL players first played in college. The path is not always linear and it's often not for a full four years. Carl Lewis ran two years at Houston before turning pro in 1982; Maurice Greene, the 2000 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist, ran only for a junior college and struck out on his own without lucrative offers.
By not running for a four-year college team (or by running only briefly), athletes miss out on the unique experience of sharing workouts and competitions with a group of like-minded peers in pursuit of team and individual goals. They also miss out on the singular two-or-three-season training slog for no reward beyond a scholarship and memories, and the risk of leaving their best work on campus, uncompensated. That grind is more punishing for a distance runner than a sprinter. Cain has only so many miles available to her; she chose not to spend them on a college career.
"I have pretty big goals," Cain wrote in her email to SI. "I know that by becoming a professional I am taking the best route to achieving them. The only cons to going pro were possibly the added pressure, but honestly, no matter what direction I chose to go, there was going to be pressure. I no longer am the dark horse in competitions. [But] facing bigger challenges and competing is my favorite part of the sport."
Cain declined comment on whether she has signed an endorsement contract with a shoe and apparel company, which is the traditional first step for a track athlete turning professional. Her agent is Ricky Simms, who is best known for representing Usain Bolt, but also Farah and Rupp. It is strongly expected that Cain will ultimately sign with Nike, to remain with Salazar, who has not customarily trained non-Nike athletes. (In 2010, Farah expressed a desire to work with Salazar, but that didn't happen until Farah's Adidas contract expired).
As for college Cain is an excellent student ("A total nerd," she called herself in an interview with SI last June, for this story). She said she plans on going to a college in Portland, but did not specify which college. "Most college students are not part of any team, and they still have a great time!" wrote Cain. "I'm just making the choice to be known at school as 'Mary the student,' rather than 'Mary the runner.'"
It is a noble attempt, but there is little doubt that if Cain meets her goals, she will, indeed --and quite possibly forever -- be known as Mary the runner.