Two weeks ago, professional track and field athlete Mary Cain spoke out about physical and emotional abuse she faced by the all-male coaching staff of Nike’s Oregon Project, a long-distance-running training group.
Cain shared her experiences in a New York Times opinion video, specifically calling out Oregon Project head coach Alberto Salazar. She told stories of how Salazar wanted to her to lose weight, wanted to give her diuretics and birth control to aid in weight loss and even weighed her and called her out in front of her teammates when she hadn’t reached the expected 114-pound goal.
In the video, Cain said that during her training, her body started to feel the effects. She didn’t have her period for three years and ended up breaking five bones. She talked about Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), which IUP Sports Performance Nutrition Services coordinator Nicole Dann-Payne said is related to the body not having enough energy for normal activity, let alone intense training.
The video focuses mainly on the female perspective, but RED-S can also affect men. Nutrition plays a large role in the everyday performance of an athlete.
What shocked Dann-Payne, as a registered dietitian nutritionist and a cross country coach at Marion Center, most about Cain’s story was that Nike failed to provide its athletes with certified dietitians.
“The value and understanding of the positive impact evidence-based sports nutrition practice has on performance continues to become clearer and clearer among athletes, coaches and athletic organizations,” Dann-Payne said. “I just find it incredibly irresponsible that the Nike Oregon Project wasn’t better assisting these elite-level athletes in properly fueling their training and performance.”
Dann-Payne oversees IUP’s Sports Performance Nutrition Services for athletes. She works with students from the Department of Food and Nutrition to educate athletes, coaches, trainers and departments on sports nutrition. They also provide one-on-one counseling to assist athletes in reaching their nutritional needs.
IUP also added a fueling station this fall in the Memorial Field House to assure healthy, nutritious food for athletes throughout the day. It has snacks like fruit, granola bars and low-fat chocolate milk.
“I am very glad Mary has chosen to speak up about her story,” Dann-Payne said. “It takes courage to speak up, but I agree with her 110 percent that the culture needs to change so that this doesn’t happen to more runners.”
Weight poses a large problem in athletes, particularly in distance running. Long-distance athletes tend to take on a slimmer body type to begin with, and coaches must keep an eye out for issues that can arise from the want to maintain a lower weight or lose weight.
“You try to look for warning signs,” IUP cross country coach Joey Zins said. “You have to put the student athletes’ health and well-being first.”
In addition to nutrition, Cain also mentioned Nike’s lack of mental health support. IUP athletes go to the counseling center since there is no specific psychologist for athletes.
After Cain’s story was released, Nike issued a statement that it was troubled by the allegations and would launch an investigation. Cain was backed up by former Oregon Project athletes, like Amy Begley and Kara Goucher, who faced similar incidences of abuse under Salazar’s coaching.
Salazar was barred from the sport of distance running for doping violations in September, leading to the shutting down of the Oregon Project a few days later.