Mary Cain shows a talent far beyond her years at nationals

Sunday June 23rd, 2013

Cain's second-place 1500m finish makes her what officials believe is the youngest member ever of a U.S. world championship team.
Bill Frakes/SI

DES MOINES, Iowa -- There will soon be a powerful urge in the world of U.S. track and field to envision what 17-year-old Mary Cain can be on some future night in some distant stadium against great middle distance runners from faraway lands. She is so young now, yet already so fast and improving more swiftly than even those closest to her had ever imagined. Her talent runs historically deep, and yet it has scarcely been explored. The temptation crawls up behind the sport and taps it on the shoulder, begging to be acknowledged, because it has been so long since an American woman was the very best in those races, and because all sports are beset by the curse of projection, where today is never worth embracing when tomorrow can be imagined.

But in this case, today is pretty good. On a blistering Saturday afternoon at Drake Stadium, Cain broke open the 1,500-meter run at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships with a lap remaining and held on for second place behind training partner Treniere Moser. Just a few weeks after the completion of her junior year at Bronxville High School in New York, Cain qualified to represent Team USA at the world championships in Moscow in mid-August. She has been confirmed as the youngest U.S. athlete to make a worlds team in the 14 renewals of the event, which was first contested in 1983.

During a media session after her race, Cain waved a fuzzy little yellow duck named Puddles and embraced the purity of the moment, in the moment.

"You never know where you're going to be years from now," Cain said. "I have the greatest support team -- coaches, parents, teammates -- so I can still be around years from now. But it's nice to get on that team when you're running good."

Cain's historic race would share the afternoon with hurdler Brianna Rollins. Only 21 herself and less than a month removed from an NCAA title, Rollins won the 100-meter hurdles in 12.26 seconds, shattering the great Gail Devers' 13-year-old U.S. record of 12.33, which had been set at the 2000 Olympic trials in Sacramento. Rollins' time was the fourth-fastest in history, just .05 behind Bulgarian Yordanka Donkova's 25-year-old record of 12.21. (Like Tyson Gay's blazing 9.75 100 meters Friday night, Rollins' race was run on a reversed home-stretch straightaway, turned around by USATF officials because of "extreme headwinds.")

With her performance, Rollins rocketed to the front of an always-powerful class of women's sprint hurdlers. Two-time Olympic medalist Dawn Harper (gold in 2008, silver in 2012) did not contest the race because she has a bye in the Worlds. Celebrity hurdler/bobsledder/tweeter Lolo Jones finished fifth in the race, missing the worlds roster by two spots. And now, Rollins stands as major competition to gold medalist Sally Pearson of Australia, who tweeted after the race: "Looks like I am bringing my A++ game to worlds this year with Brianna Rollins just running 12.26 at the USA trails today!!"

Two other American records were set: Michelle Carter, the 27-year-old daughter of former NFL lineman (and Olympic shot putter Michael Carter), and a two-time Olympian, threw the shot 66 feet, five inches to break Ramona Pagel's 25-year-old record of 66-2 ½. Amanda Bingson threw the hammer 248 feet, five inches to break Jessica Cosby's year-old American record by five feet.

But of all the record-breakers on hand this weekend, it was Cain who had come to Iowa as the sport's ascendant prodigy. A career that first showed promise when she ran a fifth-grade gym class mile in 5:15 -- "She looked like the second hand on a watch, running around there," said her father, Charlie Cain, who watched that run -- had taken her to the Olympic trials last summer after her sophomore year in high school. In the fall, her coaching was taken over by former U.S. marathon record holder Alberto Salazar, who coached Mo Farah of Great Britain and Galen Rupp of the U.S. to a gold-silver finish in the Olympic 10,000 meters, both historic runs.

In those eight short months with Salazar, Cain has broken the U.S. high school records in the 800 meters, 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters, mixing a vaguely ungainly (though improving) stride with a fierce finishing kick, and always with a long brown ponytail trailing behind her. "I couldn't have known that she would get this good this quickly," said Salazar on Saturday. "I knew she could improve. I thought she could be a contender here. I just didn't know [until they began working together] how fast she is. That girl, if she's within spitting distance of anybody [at the end of a race], you're in trouble."

At the conclusion of her high-school academic year in Bronxville, a suburb just north of New York City (where Cain is an excellent student), Cain went to Park City to train at altitude with other members of the Salazar-trained Nike Oregon Project. Cain's family pays her expenses to retain NCAA eligibility. She will go to college, but the family has not yet decided if she will run college track. The group includes not only Farah and Rupp, but also, as of this year, Moser, who is rebuilding her career after winning three consecutive U.S. titles from 2005-07. Cain (whose career is increasingly, and dangerously compared to Mary Decker Slaney, a teenage star who went on to win two titles at the first world championships in 1983) was expected to contend strongly for a worlds position.

She qualified for the final easily in her Thursday afternoon heat and was a typically ebullient 17-year-old afterward. But on Friday morning, she called her mother, also named Mary, at home in New York, overwhelmed by nerves. "I was crying, I was like, 'I'm just a little kid, I'm scared,'" Cain said. "She said 'Mary, if I could carry you away, I would, but you would be kicking yourself for the rest of your life.'"

She was equally upset on the morning of the race. "She called me [Saturday morning] and said 'I'm freaking out,'" Salazar said. "I told her come over to our [Salazar's and sports psychologist Darren Treasure's] room [at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Des Moines]. She slept for four or five hours, we watched a movie, Dark Shadows, until it got to some spicy parts and I said, 'Mary, turn away.' And I turned off the TV."

Cain said, "I let the nerves take over me for a minute, but I have an amazing sports psychologist that helped me through it." Salazar said the message was this: "She was so worried about not doing well. It was 'Mary, as long as you do your best, whether you get first or get last, we love you. Your character is not your running. Your character is you.'"

And, let it be said: Speed helps. Saturday was a miserably hot and breezy day in Des Moines. The temperature was 91 degrees and the heat index 98 degrees at the time of the 1,500 meters, ensuring that a race which is always tactical at the championship level would be excessively so, as runners refused to sacrifice their chances by setting a fast pace on the lead. It was grindingly thus; interval recovery pace for most in the field. They shuffled through 400 meters in 85 seconds, 5:40 mile pace, and then went the next 400 in 75 seconds, still slow. Cain ran near the back.

Salazar's coaching is rooted in building racers who can kick at the finish. Cain was fast before they met. Both knew where Saturday's race was headed. "I told [Cain and Moser], 'If they want to hand it up to you in the last 400 or 500 meters of the race, no one can sprint with [you].'"

"I'm a kicker," Cain said. "I was running a kicker's race."

Their plan had been for Cain to follow the 31-year-old Moser to the lead in the final lap, but Cain, growing up in real time, made her move approaching the gun and gapped the field on the backstretch with the wind at her back. It was a grown-up move from a racer who is a young girl only on her birth certificate, reminiscent of Farah's winning surge in the Olympic 10k. "I was supposed to follow Treniere," Cain said. "At 400 meters, I felt good. I just took it. I needed to intimidate. I needed to assert a presence. I was all out."

Cain opened up eight meters on the field and rolled into the homestretch. "I was feeling awesome," she said. "I thought people would be flying down that backstretch behind me. But obviously I didn't want that to happen." She was driven by the simplest of needs: "I just really wanted to get that [Team USA] uniform. I wanted my victory celebration." (Similarly, she recalled competing in the junior nationals in Eugene two years ago, which are coupled with the senior event, and seeing Allyson Felix taking a victory lap with flowers and a USA flag. "I want some of that," she recalled thinking.)

She tied up in the last 50 meters, and Moser caught her at the line. Because the early pace had been so slow in the heat, Moser's winning time of 4:28.62 was the slowest in U.S. national championship history. Under the circumstances, that statistic is meaningless, particularly to Cain. She ran her final lap in 57.5 seconds; just weeks ago, her personal best for a flat 400 was 55 seconds, though Salazar estimates she could run 53.5 now.

When she was given a medal and a flag, she shared them with her tiny yellow friend. "I brought my duck," she said, "In case I needed some comforting. So I had a little buddy to carry my flag with me." Hers was an achievement freighted with paradox, earned by one so young, yet in the manner of someone far more experienced. It needed no context and demanded no dreams. It was only for now and that was enough.

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