Inside the Toxic Culture of the Nike Oregon Project 'Cult'

Accounts from nine former Nike Oregon Project members, extending back to 2008, validate Mary Cain's claims of the abusive, toxic culture under Alberto Salazar, where female athletes’ bodies were fair game to be demeaned publicly and authority figures appeared to lack certifications.
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In a video op-ed published Thursday by the New York Times, former high school track phenom Mary Cain claimed she suffered mental and physical abuse under the supervision of disgraced star coach Alberto Salazar as a member of Nike’s Oregon Project, an elite professional training group based in Portland and owned and operated by Nike from 2001 until October of this year. Cain—who had charmed fans as a 17-year-old breakout star at the 2013 world championships—said that she broke five bones, missed her period for three years and had suicidal thoughts due to disordered eating she developed under Salazar’s extreme training methods.

Amid the fallout from Cain’s comments, Sports Illustrated contacted nine former Nike Oregon Project members, including Cain, about the culture under Salazar, and their accounts, extending back to 2008, validate her claims and paint a picture of a toxic culture where female athletes’ bodies were fair game to be demeaned publicly. Multiple authority figures appeared to lack certifications. Former team members now describe it, in retrospect, as “a cult.” Now leaders from the anti-doping world and even Salazar’s de facto successor as coach are calling for a third-party investigation of The Oregon Project.

In an email to the Times, Salazar denied most of Cain’s allegations and told The Oregonian that Cain’s parents were “deeply involved in her training” during her time with the team. Salazar said that he consulted with Cain’s father, who is a medical doctor, on medications and supplements that she used. He denied giving, encouraging or suggesting that any athlete take any banned substances. “To be clear, I never encouraged her, or worse yet, shamed her, to maintain an unhealthy weight,” Salazar wrote to The Oregonian. “Mary at times struggled to find and maintain her ideal performance and training weight," he added.

In a statement to SI Tuesday night, Salazar continued to dispute Cain’s account of her treatment by Oregon Project coaches and staff, while acknowledging that he may have made inappropriate comments. He wrote in part, “My foremost goal as a coach was to promote athletic performance in a manner that supported the good health and well-being of all my athletes. On occasion, I may have made comments that were callous or insensitive over the course of years of helping my athletes through hard training. If any athlete was hurt by any comments that I have made, such an effect was entirely unintended, and I am sorry. I do dispute, however, the notion that any athlete suffered any abuse or gender discrimination while running for the Oregon Project.” (Salazar’s full statement is available at the end of this story.)

IMPROPER TREATMENT

Cain during the 2013 USA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.

Cain during the 2013 USA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.

Salazar said in his statement that he encouraged his athletes to achieve “their target training weight and performance weight [for] peak performance while maintaining an overall good well-being.” But when Cain lost her period because of her disordered eating and sought medical assistance for it, Salazar brought her to a doctor who did not treat the underlying issue. During April 2015, Cain says, Salazar received her father’s permission to bring her to a physician for a check-up. Salazar, who was in the room with Cain during her appointment, told the doctor, a woman, that Cain had not gotten her period for a year and said it was possibly linked to her weight issues.

Cain says she did not undergo any full physical examination but was given physician-sample birth-control pills that Salazar told her would cause her to lose water weight and get her period back. When she told her parents that she had been given the medication, they told her not to take any. Salazar wrote instructions on the boxes, which Cain has retained to this day but never opened.

Dr. Charles Cain confirmed to his daughter's account of the appointment. During the 2015 indoor track and field season, Cain complained to Salazar about the way the coach discussed his daughter’s weight with her.

“She would call home and she would be upset,” Cain says. “I would tell Alberto, ‘You can’t talk to kids about this stuff. It’s a problem.’ I asked them repeatedly and clearly to stop talking about her weight.”

Salazar writes that he “did not know and was never told by Mary, her parents or any athletes that the discussion of weight was abusive.”

“Because runner weight is inherently tied to performance for elite runners, I saw it as part of my job as an endurance sport coach to help the team’s runners understand the impact weight has on performance,” Salazar wrote to SI. “I had a lot of frank discussions about weight with all of my athletes—both women and men.”

A QUESTION OF CREDENTIALS

In Salazar’s statement to The Oregonian, he said the Oregon Project’s support staff included a nutritionist and a sports psychologist. But there appears to have been no licensed nutritionist or psychologist on staff. Nike said in a statement, “We are not aware of the specific staff that you say Alberto referenced.” In his statement to SI, Salazar named three experts who he said were available to his athletes as resources. Cain does not recall working with any of those specialists.

In May 2015, Cain spiraled into depression and self-harm. This is when, she recounted to the Times, she struggled in a 1,500-meter race at Occidental College and Salazar weight-shamed her in front of other track-meet participants after the race. That same night, the 19-year-old informed Salazar and Darren Treasure that she was cutting herself. She says they ignored this cry for help.

For years, Treasure, an internationally renowned sports performance coach, was referenced in media reports and among Oregon Project team members as the team’s sports psychologist. Salazar referenced him as his “right-hand man” in 2009. In a 2013 Sports Illustrated profile of Cain, Treasure was also cited as the team’s resident sports psychologist who sat in on her interview. On the now-defunct Oregon Project website, his page was once titled “Darren Treasure, PhD—Sports Psychologist | Oregon Project.”

Treasure, though, is not a licensed psychologist. Most of the former Oregon Project athletes contacted by SI discovered Treasure was not licensed as a psychologist only after leaving the team. Pete Julian, an assistant coach, tells SI that he did not know Treasure was not licensed “until recently.”

A Nike spokesperson says Treasure served as the Oregon Project’s high performance director and was hired as a consultant by Salazar for his background working with elite athletes. Nike says it has no knowledge of any previous concerns raised by Oregon Project athletes regarding Treasure, who remains Nike’s Mental Performance Coach.

In a statement, Treasure said: “‘Psychologist’ is a term associated with a state-licensed practitioner. I have never been or practiced as a licensed psychologist. There is no such thing as a ‘licensed sport psychologist.’ My background and training is in sport psychology. … I have always referred athletes to the appropriate professional when issues of a counseling or clinical nature arose that were beyond my training. This was always the case with athletes who ran for the Oregon Project.”

But Cain says Treasure didn’t refer her to the appropriate outside help. “When I told Darren about me cutting myself, he should have directed me to a medical professional. I thought he was one. If he knew he wasn’t one and knew he couldn’t handle it both professionally and personally, then he should have redirected me to somebody who could have helped me. He let me struggle through that alone.”

Alberto Salazar looks on during the 2013 USA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.

Alberto Salazar looks on during the 2013 USA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.

That was not the only complaint former Oregon Project athletes had about Treasure. Some who spoke with SI said Salazar wanted every team member to work closely with Treasure—in some cases, Treasure would be the last person the athletes would speak to before stepping on the track—and, in turn, Treasure would share private conversations he had with athletes with Salazar.

“Everything I told Darren in confidence, Alberto would talk to me about later,” Olympic distance runner Kara Goucher, who left the Oregon Project in 2011 before blowing the whistle on possible anti-doping offenses there, says. “Darren would tell me things that my teammates were saying to me in confidence. I was privy to other people’s personal thoughts and secrets that they would tell Darren, and I would be told about them. Openly, he and Alberto would laugh about stuff going on with other people. It makes me really ashamed, actually. Nothing was secret.”

For her nutritional needs, Cain says she worked with Colleen Glyde Julian, the wife of Pete Julian. Glyde Julian has a PhD in health and behavioral sciences from the Health and Sciences Center at the University of Colorado-Denver, worked in the University of Colorado Denver’s Department of Medicine and has a background in elite running. She is not, though, a certified nutritionist. (Nike’s understanding, relayed to SI, is that she was a consultant on the Oregon Project.)

On Dec. 18, 2013, according to correspondence reviewed by SI, Glyde Julian contacted Cain and her father saying Oregon Project staff members would like her to do a nutritional assessment, as had been done with other Oregon Project athletes. Cain’s father approved and was copied on emails between Cain and Glyde Julian that included diet and nutritional advice.

Glyde Julian never presented herself to the Cains as a nutritionist. But Charles Cain says he was under the impression Glyde Julian was properly certified to perform a nutritional assessment and provide Mary nutritional advice. “I didn’t do a background check on these people. … They were all working under this umbrella of Nike and you believed that because of that, they were going to be what they were presented as.” (In an email to SI, Glyde Julian wrote that “decisions regarding her referral to a certified professional nutritionist or psychologist should be made by her physician. Please recall that I was asked to simply provide very basic recommendations for healthful food choices by email and that is what I did.”)

DEMEANING REMARKS

After the release of Cain’s video op-ed, former Oregon Project athletes provided their own accounts of Salazar’s weight-loss obsession. Canadian marathoner Cam Levins, who trained under Salazar from 2013–17, confirmed on Instagram that Oregon Project coaches were “obsessed” with Cain's weight loss, and he apologized for not speaking out. In a statement to SI, Levins added that he ‘absolutely’ believes Cain and can “corroborate that she was told to lose weight and that by doing so she would be more successful.”

Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein, who ran for Salazar from 2009–14, shared a condominium with Cain when she trained in Park City, Utah, as a high schooler. Cain recalls stealing Ritzenhein’s Clif Bars to sneak away to her room because she was afraid to eat them in front of Salazar. While Ritzenhein left the team before Cain’s struggles and distress escalated, he apologized to her for the abuse she experienced under Salazar.

Ritzenhein says, “She was so happy and full of joy. She was so young… As a father of a daughter who is not much younger than Mary was then, and as a coach of women, it makes me sick to see what happened to her.”

Salazar’s unhealthy culture was allegedly in place before Cain joined the team. Amy Yoder Begley competed for the United States in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and trained under Salazar until 2011. When she announced her decision to leave the team, she initially blamed injuries and differing views with Salazar on how to rehabilitate from them. Following the publication of Cain’s story, Yoder Begley said that she was kicked out of the Oregon Project.

“I was told I was too fat and ‘had the biggest butt on the starting line’,” Yoder Begley tweeted on Thursday. “This brings those painful memories back. I have not commented publicly about USADAs [anti-doping] investigation into Alberto Salazar because I did not personally witness or take part in any of the violations he is accused of. But I have first hand experience with what [Mary Cain] described in the [New York Times].”

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Goucher recalls Yoder Begley being weighed in front of her when they were preparing for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Park City. Goucher remembers Salazar telling Begley, “You have no shot. You’re too fat.” Her husband, Adam, was also present and witnessed the repeated criticism.

“They were hung up on her butt,” Kara Goucher says. “He was obsessed with the fact that it hung out of her shorts. She was tiny and it was a constant thing with her. They were so mean to Amy that it was crazy.”

Ritzenhein also recalls similar conversations between coaches about Yoder Begley. “They were joking about how much weight she had gained,” he says. “Amy was very successful, but she was still vulnerable to ridicule and criticism like that. It was sad to see.”

Steve Magness, an assistant coach under Salazar from 2011 to 2012, confirmed Yoder Begley’s account. This week, he reviewed records and found that her body fat percentage was 11.1 using a hydrostatic method or 12.4 using skin calipers, which he estimates is around the lowest a woman can go without impacting her health.

“I remember Salazar saying something like, ‘Her a-- was hanging out of her uniform’,” Magness says. “In that moment, he added, ‘I’m done with you. I’m tired of fighting this weight issue. We’re done.’ Amy countered by saying she hadn’t gained any weight. Alberto said he didn’t care what her weight said. ‘I know you’ve gotten bigger.’ There was this conversation on if her jean sizes had gone up because her butt was bigger. It was the [most] bizarre thing ever.”

(In a statement, Yoder Begley thanked her former teammates and said: “Since 2011, I’ve tried hard not to relive my experiences at the Oregon Project. I support Mary and hope to make a positive impact on the sport now as a coach.”)

In a phone interview, Magness also recalled hearing similar comments when Goucher was returning from pregnancy. Magness says Salazar would comment on the size of her breasts in front of other people and at practice in 2011. Goucher and her husband, Adam, confirmed these comments. Adam Goucher tweeted that Salazar—following the 2011 Boston Marathon where Goucher ran 2:24 just six months removed from giving birth—approached her family and said, “Don’t tell Kara, but she is still too heavy. She needs to lose her baby weight if she wants to be fast again.”

A COACH’S REGRETS

In September, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Salazar from track and field for four years after finding that, among other things, the famed coach had “trafficked” in testosterone. (Salazar has since filed an appeal against the ban with the Court of Arbitration for Sport.) The next month, Nike shuttered the Oregon Project, citing it as a distraction to some of its current members who were set to race at the Chicago Marathon. Salazar’s former assistant, Pete Julian, will continue to coach some former Oregon Project athletes, though it is not yet clear under which banner. Julian, assistant with the team during Cain’s tenure, wrote on Instagram on Oct. 23: “I don't regret one minute of my time with the NOP the past seven years.”

But after reading Cain’s story Thursday, Julian told SI that, upon reflection, if he could go back in time, he’d look to do something different or be more supportive. Though Cain worked more closely with Salazar and Treasure, Julian was present at practices, training camps and competitions. Julian says there were times where he was “put in a position” to relay information from Salazar on everything from running mechanics to losing or gaining weight.

Cain tells SI that Julian was present for many of the shaming comments from Salazar and does not believe Julian is fit to coach in the future.

“I think you have to be a leader to be a coach,” Cain says. “I think you have to be somebody who is willing to stand up even when it’s hard. Sometimes that means taking a fall and saying, ‘Hey, I did something wrong so let’s readjust.’ Sometimes that means standing up to people who are in positions higher than you and saying, ‘This isn’t OK.’ If you don’t have the backbone to do that … if you don’t have the ability to step in when your athlete is struggling or suffering, then you’re not. How can you be a leader?”

Julian says he agrees with Cain’s assessment about standing up to those in power. He says he would alter messages from Salazar to athletes to be softer and more compassionate and “sometimes in a way that I felt that it was more right” despite it sometimes being in direct conflict with Salazar’s view.

“I think Mary raises some good points, but I don’t think she understands how much I was actually doing for her, when I was actually trying to protect her when these messages were given to me and for me to stand up for her behind the scenes,” Julian says.

Julian adds, “I need to make it clear that I’m really sorry that Mary had to go through this. I didn’t know that she had this much pain.”

THE FALLOUT AT NIKE

The sportswear giant is making some leadership changes, though when the moves were announced last month, the company denied they were tied to the scandal involving Salazar and the Oregon Project. Mark Parker will step down as Nike’s CEO in January after 13 years in charge, and Nike board member and ServiceNow, Inc. CEO John Donahoe will succeed him as the executive chairman.

The changes also come after multiple lawsuits were filed over allegations of gender discrimination in spring 2018; some top executives left the company amid the workplace issues. This spring, former Nike track athletes—including Goucher and Olympian Allyson Felix—also came forward to the Times about Nike’s treatment of pregnant athletes and contract reductions. Nike announced it would no longer apply those reductions to athletes on maternity leave.

As of Wednesday morning, the Gouchers and Magness say they have not been contacted by Nike in regards to the recent allegations made by Cain. Yoder Begley, Levins and Ritzenhein were contacted by Nike on Friday and told an investigation would soon be underway and they would hear from them the following week. On Saturday afternoon and Tuesday afternoon, an attorney in Nike’s legal department left Cain voicemails, looking to speak with her about the matter and the upcoming investigation.

“What happened to [Cain] is not OK,” Ritzenhein says, “The snake’s head has already been chopped off. But there’s a lot of people who need to take a look at themselves and see what created that piece to begin with.”

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Cain is calling on Nike to open itself to an outside investigation, whereby Nike would commit to turning over all the emails between Nike employees, members of the Nike Oregon Project members and outside doctors or consultants. Nike would also make statements of assurance to all Nike athletes that they expect them to cooperate, be truthful and the company will not retaliate in any way.

“I believe Nike should investigate,” Cain says. “But I also believe it should not be Nike investigating themselves. … I would propose it be an organization such as USADA, the USOPC or SafeSport. We need a third party that is unbiased and will actually do the due diligence to determine what needs to change to actually support athletes going forward.”

When asked whether Nike would allow an outside party to examine the Oregon Project, a company spokesperson repeated a statement similar to the one given to the Times while adding that an investigation is already underway.

Without question, Nike’s roots run deep in track and field, and many of the natural candidates to investigate Nike have a business relationship with the apparel giant. Nike signed a 23-year sponsorship extension with USA Track and Field in 2014. In March, Nike agreed to a long term sponsorship through the 2028 Olympics with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

USADA CEO Travis Tygart tells SI that there is a “mountain of evidence” regarding the toxic culture at the Oregon Project and Nike is in possession of much of it from the anti-doping investigation into Salazar. Tygart believes everyone who was in a position to influence athletes’ choices in health and wellbeing need to be examined by an independent organization.

“Any investigation that [Nike] does at this stage will be a charade to protect the brand,” Tygart says.

All of the former athletes and coaches contacted by SI said they would be willing to cooperate with an outside investigation into the Oregon Project. Pete Julian and Darren Treasure also welcomed Cain’s suggestion.

“I think that Mary’s suggestion is actually making sure that somebody outside of sport is also a wonderful suggestion and I 100% support that,” Julian says. “I am willing to cooperate as much as possible. I want what’s best for these athletes. … I would rather have an independent body verify this rather than just Nike. I want people to believe it. I want people to understand it and trust it.”

In statements, Nike and Salazar have both noted that Cain had expressed interest in rejoining the Oregon Project as recently as this spring. After the publication of her video, Nike said: “These are deeply troubling allegations which have not been raised by Mary or her parents before. Mary was seeking to rejoin the Oregon Project and Alberto’s team as recently as April of this year, and had not raised these concerns as part of that process. We take the allegations extremely seriously and will launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes. At Nike we seek to always put the athlete at the center of everything we do, and these allegations are completely inconsistent with our values.”

“What I found so horrifying from Nike’s response is the fact that they’re trying to invalidate my story because six months ago I couldn’t accept what was going on,” Cain says. “Different people have different things that trigger them to realize their situation was not OK. In events like the #MeToo Movement, there are many cases where it took decades for someone to talk about their situation. That doesn’t mean their stories aren’t valid.”

FULL STATEMENT FROM ALBERTO SALAZAR:

"My foremost goal as a coach was to promote athletic performance in a manner that supported the good health and well-being of all my athletes. On occasion, I may have made comments that were callous or insensitive over the course of years of helping my athletes through hard training. If any athlete was hurt by any comments that I have made, such an effect was entirely unintended, and I am sorry. I do dispute, however, the notion that any athlete suffered any abuse or gender discrimination while running for the Oregon Project.

Because runner weight is inherently tied to performance for elite runners, I saw it as part of my job as an endurance sport coach to help the team’s runners understand the impact weight has on performance. I had a lot of frank discussions about weight with all of my athletes—both women and men. That’s part of elite sport. Maybe that needs to change. Indeed, I have always treated men and women similarly in this regard—to treat my female athletes differently I believe would not be in their personal interests or in the interests of promoting their best athletic performance. I did not know and was never told by Mary, her parents, or any athlete—male or female—that the discussion of weight was abusive.

At no point did I have a policy or practice of requiring female athletes to lose weight. Instead, I have discussed with all of my athletes, both women and men, what their target training weight and performance weight should be to attain peak performance while maintaining an overall good well-being. For some athletes, both women and men, their target training weight and performance weight were either below or above the weight at which they entered the program.

Moreover, these discussions about training weight and performance weight frequently included significant persons in the athletes’ lives For example, Mary Cain’s father who is a trained physician, Dr. Charles Cain, was copied on emails to her regarding her training and nutrition.

Furthermore, I have always ensured that my athletes, both women and men, have available to them resources, such as dietitians, nutritionists and others, to help them achieve or maintain any training weight or performance weight in a healthy and appropriate manner. This included, among others and at various times, Dr. Krista Austin (an exercise physiologist and nutritionist with a PhD in exercise physiology & sports nutrition), Dr. Renée Pirkl (a licensed psychologist), and Ruth Carey (a registered dietitian and board certified specialist in sports dietetics).

These discussions and exchanges were always meant to help these athletes reach their goals of being the best in the world which is a difficult and often unattainable goal. It was my job to help them get there and that meant a lot of sacrifice and discipline both on the track and off. This is not to say that coaching at the elite level doesn’t need to evolve. While I disagree with what Mary has said publicly about her treatment by Oregon Project coaches and staff, her underlying message that elite coaching needs more women is a good one."