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BRONXVILLE, N.Y. -- Mary Cain was at an impasse in 2012. At 15, she was being recognized in the running community for her speed, but her passion for the sport had stalled. The pressure of expectations had sapped some of the fun.
As she watched the London Olympics with her mother, they saw the runners coached by Alberto Salazar. Cain said, half-jokingly, that Salazar should become her coach. Cain even dreamily asked out loud: "I wonder if I could get his email?"
"I guess I've always been the type of kid who looks to the stars," she said.
The first time we sat down he said, 'This is a 10-year program. I don't want you peaking at age 16.' I just take a lot of confidence from that.” -- Mary Cain, on working with coach Alberto Salazar
Fast-forward a month.
Cain was in bed nearly asleep while her mother, also named Mary, watched television in the living room. Her mom was relaxing when the phone rang. Whom do they know in Oregon? Probably a telemarketer. Her mom let it go. Then she heard Salazar introducing himself on the family's answering machine.
"I did the 100-yard dash in two seconds," she said and grabbed the call just in time. Her daughter sat up alarmed by the racket.
"I said to her, 'This is like a prayer being answered,'" the elder Mary said.
The partnership began gradually. Salazar called because he saw a video of Cain running, all limbs and a ponytail contained by a ribbon. She had, he said, the legs of a Ferrari, but her disorganized upper body was slowing her down. He wanted to tell her coach but found out Cain didn't have one. He got the family's number by calling information. Cain asked Salazar for some workout advice. It was supposed to be a simple, email arrangement.
But Salazar wasn't prepared for how much he would like the young runner and her family. She listened so quietly he wondered if she understood, but she would implement his concepts so thoroughly he was stunned.
"She's the smartest young person I've ever met," Salazar said. "Not just in schoolwork, but in intuitiveness. I've never seen someone that learns something as quickly, literally."
If you hadn't heard of Mary Cain before that phone call, and few outside the running community or local athletic district had, you may have heard of her by now. After beginning her association with Salazar, a distance runner who dominated the New York City Marathon in the early 1980s, the already accomplished Cain saw immediate results. She became a part of his Nike Oregon Project team of promising young runners. It seemed to be a stabilizing force, as if his belief in her potential unlocked hidden speed.
"The first time we sat down he said, 'This is a 10-year program. I don't want you peaking at age 16,'" Cain said. "I just take a lot of confidence from that."
With her lanky frame and the mind of a tactician, she smoothly transitioned from interscholastic to national-level competition. She has held her own against far more experienced runners while feeling their acceptance in a new community. She clobbered the American record for the girls' high school mile -- again -- at the Millrose Games at the Armory in New York in February by running in 4 minutes, 28.25 seconds. In that race, she was the top American finisher in a field of professional runners and second overall.
Cain set a high school record in the two mile at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix. Her personal record in the 800 meters is 2:03.34, 10 seconds off the world record. In the 1,500 -- which could ultimately be her event internationally -- her best was 4:11.01 on an outdoor track at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona in July. Cain broke that mark Friday when she became the youngest athlete to compete in an invitational event at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, and finished sixth in 4:10.77.
So how good can she be?
"To be honest with that, I could say we're just going to see how it goes," Salazar said. "Mary knows what I told her; she has as much talent as any young athlete I've ever seen in running -- in my life."
And Salazar hopes to protect all that potential as she develops her skills.
Before Mary Decker's worst moment -- falling at the Olympics -- became her most iconic, she was an American-grown distance running star. In the early 1970s, Decker was an athletically precocious teen who was, like Cain, competitive not just among her peers but among the professional runners.
The comparisons to Decker where first made by Cain's mother when Cain was in eighth grade and Mary Sr. donned Decker's ponytails to cheer her daughter during a meet. They were soon drawn in earnest by many observers. Such discussion can be intimidating, however, and Cain had to stop reading message boards that discussed her in such a detached and critical way. The perks of such celebrity were nice, though. Her father, Charlie, watched as young girls asked his daughter for autographs at meets and reporters called with a sincere interest in his smart, boldly bookish daughter.
Suddenly his daughter was extraordinary, or nearly so. She had attained the kind of mild celebrity that comes with mastery. Cain was like a chess prodigy, a young teen who writes an opera or a tennis player who debuts at Wimbledon to reach the quarterfinal. It was overwhelming, and her dad realized running was angling to be her entire life.
"How do you make sure that she has the opportunity to do all the things that a high school student does without this becoming too big a part of her day to day?" Charlie asked.
New York Road Runners CEO Mary Wittenberg, who has seen prodigies burn out before the dust has settled on their teen years, sounded a note of caution. Wittenberg feels some responsibility to Cain, who will come of age on her watch and on her turf. Yes, Cain is up there with Decker when it comes to the best high school runners, Wittenberg said, but a career is much longer.
"It's, to me right now, not about how fast she can run but how can she train and race in a way to get stronger every year," Wittenberg said. "She's already so good that she doesn't need to hit home runs."
It's something Salazar guards against, as he has done with other athletes like Galen Rupp. He is coaching process over results.
"Often in high school phenoms, the problem is they have success at a young age. They keep winning and breaking records," Salazar said. "If that's what makes you happy, at some point you run against better athletes and you can't win all the time. If your reason to run is winning, what's going to happen when you can't do that?"
"But we're not going to rush it," Salazar said. "There have been other people who had a lot of talent and burned out. I did it to myself. I trained too hard and ruined myself, and it's happened to a lot of athletes."
Cain appears perfectly ordinary in her living room after a workout with Salazar, who was in town for an appearance. She gently deflected the family's white poodle, Albus Dumbledore, who finds her irresistibly salty after a run.
She reveals she is competitive in her schoolwork just as she is with running. She has a group of friends at Bronxville who compare academic notes and push each other in the classroom. The village of Bronxville is a small but privileged town filled with overachievers. Amid the slate roofs and turreted mansions just minutes north of New York City, Charlie and Mary have raised their four daughters in a comparatively modest home.
The elder Mary was a high school runner when she grew up in the Bronx. School was where young Mary's running began too, at the annual field day. By the time she was in fifth grade, she had already figured out a system. Despite urging from classmates, Cain would avoid the 40-yard and 100-yard dashes, saving herself for the long run. A thinker from the start.
The tendency to ruminate has worked against some athletes, and Salazar has all his athletes work with a sports psychologist. He told Cain it was part of the training that could help her most. It turns out he was right.
"Running is such a mental sport," Cain said. "You're with a pack for so long, there's a lot of hustling going on."
More importantly, Cain is using the process-oriented approach to other parts of her life, like college. As a high school junior, she is targeting teachers for letters of recommendation, perfecting her GPA and visiting colleges.
Cain plans to attend college. But will she run there?
Maybe. Cain is grateful for the NCAA rules that limit the amount of contact she can have with college coaches. She might go to school for, as radical as this sounds, only an education. But either way, she has made the choice not to worry about it until next year.
For her mother, the past few months have been a gratifying whirlwind as she watched her daughter stride from uncertainty to a much better place.
"The highlight has been seeing her really happy," said Cain's mother. "She's found this renewed happiness in this sport."