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  • 26 Dec 2014

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Cain shows she's able on track, and in a lot of other ways

EUGENE -- I'm kind of thinking Mary Cain is wasting her time in track and field.

Alberto Salazar's latest protege ought to be serving as a U.S. ambassador somewhere. Send her to Gaza or the Ukraine or to a place where her diplomatic aptitude could be put to best use.

Or perhaps she should be in front of a camera as host of a TV talk show. Pair her with Oprah and you'd provide entertainment for any audience.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Cain is only 18, beginning a life that I'm predicting right now will be full of accomplishments and friendships and a variety of interests and pleasures.

If her smile doesn't win you over, her personality probably will.

"Of all the runners I've worked with over the years, Mary is already the favorite of my wife (Molly)," Salazar says with a grin. "She says, 'You can invite Mary over to dinner any time.' "

Cain can run, too -- maybe as well as any American distance runner since Mary Slaney.

It's a little early to say that, but Cain's precocious talents can't be ignored after her run to victory in the 3,000 at the World Junior Track & Field Championships Thursday night at Hayward Field.

The Portland resident and Bronxville, N.Y., native hung back in a tightly bunched pack, then exploded past Kenyans Lilian Kasait Rengeruk and Valentina Chepkwemoi Mateiko over the final 150 meters to win in 8:58.48 as the Hayward throng stood and cheered with delight.

Afterward, she charmed a group of international media with a running commentary that required few questions but plenty of space on the digital recorder.

"That was a lot of fun," Cain gushed. "There were some surges in there that felt like 800-meter pace. The last 50 meters, I just felt so good. I know you're not supposed to look up at the (Jumbotron) screen, but I was so looking up at the screen. 'Oh my gosh, I'm in the lead.'

"It was so amazing with the crowd. There's nowhere else they'd have been that loud. It was surreal. That was an amazing experience."

In an interview that may have lasted 15 minutes, Cain used the word "amazing" 17 times. I'm going to have Salazar talk to her about that. She needs to mix up her adjectives a little more.

Everything can't be amazing.

But on Thursday night, that was an apt description of Cain's performance on the biggest stage of her young career.

The pace was pedestrian, which played perfectly into the hands of Cain, who showed her sprinter's speed with a kick that blew away the Kenyans and everyone else in the field of the world's best runners 19 years and younger.

"It went about the way I thought it would," Salazar said. "I was real confident that she could outkick everybody. With three laps to go, I knew it was over. I shouldn't say that -- maybe somebody could run the race of her lifetime. But I could see Mary looked really good. I don't think any of those girls are as fast as her."

Salazar told me before the race that Cain "is in 8:45 or 8:50 shape." Her personal record going in was 9:15.81, but she hasn't run many competitive 3Ks, with more of her races at 800 of 1,500 meters. Seven competitors came into the race with better PRs, which mattered not at all.

"Most world-level races are a little slow in the beginning," Cain explained. "I was mentally and physically prepared for that. In my mind, I thought it was going to be a nine-minute race. If it was going to be 8:40, I was going to go with it, too. I tried to prepare for anything."

So Cain stayed patient, negotiating her way through the pack on the inside on the final back stretch, then slipping past Mateiko and around Rengeruk and then blasting down the stretch to a resounding victory.

"I felt really comfortable," Cain said. "I was boxed in a lot. You could tell we were all a little antsy. We were getting clipped a lot. There were a few of us who could maintain a faster pace. I tried to stay calm and tell myself if I'm there with 200 meters to go, that's my sort of race.

"Alberto always tells me before a race, 'Let's make this a 200-meter time trial and we're done.' That last 120, I made my move. There was a little bit of a stumble, but if anything, that got me going quicker. I got into full sprint mode.

"I feel amazing. I have the (U.S.) flag here. I'm going to hear the national anthem later. I'm just really pumped."

Salazar and Cain began working together in October 2012, after he had watched video of her placing sixth while setting the American high school record in the 1,500 in the World Junior Championships at Barcelona. They'd met briefly during the Olympics trials in Eugene earlier that year. Cain and her coach had approached Salazar and asked to take a photo with him.

In the video, Salazar had noticed Cain was "swinging her arms in an inefficient manner" while running. He phoned the coach and "offered my two cents worth -- friendly advice."

It turned out the coach was no longer working with Cain. So Salazar phoned the Cains' home.

"Her mom answered and didn't believe it was me at first," Salazar said. "She said they had been thinking about calling me that day. They asked if I'd be willing to coach her that fall.

"I gave her some workouts, but never expected it to be a long-term thing. Things went well and they asked me to continue doing it."

Cain turned pro and officially joined Salazar's Nike Oregon Project group last November, but stayed in Bronxville to graduate from high school. To say she is a serious student is an understatement. She graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average and earned four advanced placement credits, "which is like a year of college," Salazar said.

She is now living in Portland and will enroll at the University of Portland for fall term with an emphasis on science.

"I am very serious about (academics)," Cain said Thursday night. "That's why I'm going to the University of Portland. I know it's a really good school.

"I'm excited to start classes in the fall. I'm going to be in their honors program. I wanted to heavy load it. I'm taking 19 credits, but I took AP biology and chemistry, so I already know the stuff."

"She is so bright," Salazar said. "I've never had a runner who brings her school books (to workouts) and will be studying throughout the day."

I asked Salazar if a part of him wanted Cain to run for Oregon, his alma mater.

"Yeah," he said. "I thought originally it might good for her for a year or two to have that team camaraderie and not have the pressure of being a pro athlete right away, where she's immediately judged on her performance. At the college level, it's a heck of a lot easier to have success. And then even if she didn't do great at the pro level, she wouldn't have the pressure as much.

"But she's so smart and determined. She felt even though she'll take her knocks at the pro level, she'd rather do that than run at a level where it wouldn't be as challenging."

Cain's best race right now, Salazar said, is the 1,500.

"She's going to be a great 800-meter runner, and she'll do some good 3Ks and 5Ks, too," he said. "But she is a pure 1,500 runner."

What makes Cain so good?

"She has a God-given talent to run fast," Salazar said. "By fast, I'm not talking about running fast 1,500 times. Her raw speed is incredible. She has run 12.5 for 100 meters with a couple of steps start. If she had been training as a 100-meter runner with a good high school sprint coach, she could run 11.7 or 11.8. That would win the state meet in most states.

"That's the key factor in trying to predict how good somebody will be. You can get anybody strong, but if you don't have that super fast speed, you don't have a chance at the highest levels. I wouldn't be surprised if she runs the fastest 100 of any 1,500-meter runner in the country. Mary has run a 54-something in the 400, and I have to believe she can run 52."

Salazar was a world-class distance runner during the era of Slaney, who set six world records in 1982 and won double gold at the 1983 World Championships but never reached her potential after that, primarily because of injuries. Does Salazar see any similarities?

"Absolutely," he said. "They have the same sort of talent. They're both driven. But I would say Mary Slaney was like me -- sort of obsessed with pushing yourself all out, and as a result, pushing too hard and hurting yourself. Mary Cain is much smarter and more rational and than we were. She's not scared to back off, where mary and I would never back off, and that's where we wrecked our bodies."

Cain is something else, too -- a very nice person.

"She's very sweet," Salazar said. "She'll pet an animal for an hour. She crosses herself when she sees a dead animal on the road."

After her race Thursday night, Cain asked U.S. teammate Stephanie Jenks -- who finished 15th -- to join on her on a victory lap. Jenks was flush with excitement afterward.

"That was so much fun," said Jenks, a native of Marion, Iowa, who turns 17 next month. "I love Mary Cain. She's such a kind girl. She's been so nice to me.

"I thought the Kenyans would dominate her. Mary totally proved me wrong. She has inspired me to work extremely hard."

"I watched after the 5K finals the other night, and the Kenyan girls were (running a victory lap) together," Cain explained. "I wanted to share that with Stephanie. She's so cool, so fun, so nice. It reminds me of why I love to run. There's amazing spirit in our sport. You meet such great people."

Cain feels that way about Salazar.

"He really is the best coach in the world, in terms of all the stuff he makes you do athletically, spiritually and mentally," she said. "Big checks in every category. I have the greatest support team in the world with the Nike Oregon Project and my family. My dad and boyfriend were out here today. The first thing my dad said, 'Your mom was screaming at home.' "

Cain was asked if she ever lets the pressure get to her.

"Every race I go into, I want to win," she said. "Every race I go into, even if it's world-record pace or something insane, I go into it thinking I can win. That's what I was thinking tonight. I don't take it as pressure. It's not a negative thing. I take it as sports and knowledge that I know I can do it. It's more of a strengthening thing than something that pulls you down."

Cain's goals for the rest of the summer?

"Run fast," she said. "Run smart. Get better. I think I can do some pretty great things and run really fast. But all it's about is competing.

"Tonight, I won in a nine-minute race. It was a PR for me, but I know I can run a lot faster. In a way, it doesn't really matter. All that matters is, I learned a lot from this race. I learned how to handle being boxed in, I learned how to be nervous in international competition. Times will come, but it's about getting myself in these races and going for it."

Salazar has Cain entered in the 1,500 in a pair of Diamond League meets -- at Stockholm on Aug. 21 and at Zurich on Aug. 28.

"But we'll see about Zurich," Salazar said. "If she runs there, she'll have missed the first four days of school. There's a chance if she runs an unbelievable time on the 21st, she'll say, 'I don't want to miss school,' and come home."

Salazar is going to handle Cain's career with maximum care.

"If things go well, she has the ability to be the best in the world and vie for (World and Olympic) medals some day," he said. "But there's no guarantee. Those things are a good goal for Galen Rupp. It's the same thing with Mary. You have to tell the world what your goals are. If you don't shoot for them, there's no way to hit them."

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