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Distance runner Mary Cain sues ex-coach and Nike for $20M over alleged emotional abuse

Nike let Alberto Salazar "weight-shame women, objectify their bodies, and ignore their health and wellbeing as part of its culture," Cain’s attorney said.
Mary Cain
Mary Cain walks off the track after competing in the women's special 1500-meter run at the Drake Relays athletics meet on April 29, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa.Charlie Neibergall / AP file

A once-promising distance runner filed a $20 million lawsuit against a former coach and their employer, Nike, accusing them of inflicting years of emotional and physical abuse.

Mary Cain, 25, said she suffered long-term and permanent injuries, "loss of dignity, pride, self-esteem, developed an eating disorder, major depressive disorder" and post-traumatic stress due to training under coach Alberto Salazar at the sports giant's Nike Oregon Project, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Salazar callously controlled every aspect of Cain's life for four years and Nike should have warned her about the coach's "emotional and physically abusive behavior with female athletes," Kristen West McCall, a Portland lawyer representing Cain, said.

Salazar "consistently made comments to plaintiff about her appearance, her weight and her body," the civil complaint said. "Salazar told her she was too fat and that her breasts and bottom were too big."

McCall added: "Salazar and other Nike employees often made sexist and objectifying comments about female athletes, focusing on their appearance and weight, while they did not make similar comments to or regarding male athletes."

Salazar kept Cain on a strict diet, "arbitrarily" setting her weight at 114 pounds, which led to her being underfed, the lawsuit said. It also forced the runner to "to steal Cliff bars from her teammates and eat them in the bathroom," according to the document.

Cain was one of the world's most promising distance runners, winning the 3,000-meter world junior championship in 2014. But injuries, the abuse she allegedly suffered at the hands of Salazar and Nike's blind eye derailed that up-and-coming career, the lawsuit said.

Cain even began cutting herself and told Salazar and a Nike-hired sports psychologist as a way of "reaching out for help" and "they did nothing," according to the civil complaint.

In recent years, Cain has been an advocate for mental health awareness for athletes and a vocal critic of Nike and Salazar.

A Nike representative on Wednesday declined to specifically address Cain's allegations.

"We don’t comment on ongoing litigation," according to a Nike statement. "Nike is committed to positively affecting the future of sport for women and girls and we are doing more in this space than ever before."

Salazar did not respond to multiple email and telephone messages from NBC News on Wednesday, seeking his response.

Salazar helped found the Nike Oregon Project to make American distance runners competitive with the rest of the world. It was disbanded in 2019 after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency accused Salazar of three violations. The agency banned him from the sport for four years.

Salazar appealed to the Court for Arbitration for Sport. Last month, the court upheld Salazar’s four-year ban from the sport and some of USADA’s findings. It ruled that Salazar attempted an “intentional and orchestrated scheme to mislead” anti-doping investigators when he tampered with evidence.

Earlier this year, Salazar received a lifetime ban from coaching by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for sexual and emotional misconduct.

He has previously denied all allegations of abuse.