New York, USA - As the pulsating stadium anthem reverberated through the 168th Street Armory in Upper Manhattan, Mary Cain punched the sides of her legs with clenched fists and whispered, “Come on!” to herself as she turned back toward the starting line.
While the music and crowd energy certainly helped her get pumped up moments before the Wanamaker Women’s Mile at the Millrose Games, it was once again Cain who delivered a jolt to the track and field establishment during a winter which has made her one of the long-range favourites for the girls’ 1500m at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Donetsk, Ukraine, this summer.
On 16 February, in one of the most famous indoor meetings on the calendar, the 16-year-old from Bronxville in New York state finished second to Canada’s Sheila Reid in this star-studded professional race, running 4:28.25 to set four new records.
The time shaved four seconds off her national high school and American junior record, and en route her 1500m time of 4:11.72 also established new national high school and junior records at that distance.
“My first thought was that I didn’t want her to beat me,” said Reid, who ran 4:27.02. “But this girl is world-class. “
It was the latest conquest in what has been an all-out assault on the record books this winter by Cain,
At the University of Washington Indoor Preview on January 12, she clocked 9:02.10 for 3000m, with only the oversized track at Dempsey Indoor Arena in Seattle preventing her setting a national record.
Two weeks later, she took down the 41-year-old national record in the Mile, running 4:32.78 at the New Balance Games in New York. Her en-route time of 4:16.11 broke the 1500m mark of 4:18.9 set way back in 1978 by Lynn Jennings, who went on to take three IAAF World Cross Country Championships titles.
On 2 February, Cain then lopped 17 seconds off a Two Miles national record that had stood for 22 years, clocking 9:38.68 in a third-place finish behind three-time Olympic gold medalist Tirunesh Dibaba at the Boston Indoor Games.
Cain herself put her rapid rise this winter into perspective. “Last year, I ran the high school Mile here and came in fourth, so I am moving up,” she said with a giggle. “This is a dream come true.”
The one-time competitive swimmer began making a splash locally as a middle-distance runner. After just two years at Bronxville High, where she won a number of state titles in track and cross country as well as two national titles, it became clear that she had outgrown her surroundings.
While running the 800m at the US Olympic Trials last summer – where she finished 18th – Cain caught the eye of marathon legend Alberto Salazar, steward of the Nike Oregon Project and coach to London 2012 Olympic Games medalists Mo Farah and Galen Rupp.
In September, Salazar was watching a YouTube video of Cain’s national high school record performance of 4:11.02 in the 1500m at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona, where she finished sixth despite running against women up to three years older than her and noticed flaws in her running mechanics: she tends to hunch her shoulders.
He decided to reach out and offer some pointer and soon Salazar was to agree to a long-distance coaching arrangement with Cain.
Salazar scripts her workouts from Oregon and arranged for former New Zealand Olympian John Henwood to supervise all her workouts in New York.
“Every week or two weeks I get surprised by something she does,” Salazar recently told USA Today. “Something she does in a workout, I just go 'Wow!’”
Cain, however, has apparently not been shocked by any of her recent success.
“Based on my training, I have not really been surprised,” she said. “I have, obviously, such an amazing coach. Whenever he tells me that I can do something, I don’t take it as pressure and get scared saying, ‘Oh my God, I have to do this.’ It’s more like, ‘Wow. He believes in me.’”
Cain, who will conclude her indoor season at the USA Indoor Championships in Albuquerque this coming weekend, got another boost in confidence after her Two Miles race at the Boston Indoor Games, when she and her Oregon Project teammates were put through a post-meet workout by Salazar.
“People were all watching us like, ‘What the heck are they doing?’” Cain said. “Tara (Erdmann) and Treniere (Moser) and I did it together. Afterward, being able to turn in a really good workout and a solid effort, I closed my last 200 of the workout really fast, I was like, ‘Wow! I still have this left.’ That really builds confidence.”
Unlike her multiplying legion of fans, Cain has not dwelled on her gaudy statistics and is instead focusing on gaining the big-race experience and tactics she will need to make the difficult leap from prodigy to proven international star.
“When I go into every race, it’s not all about time, and to an extent it’s not even about place. It’s about competing well,” Cain said. “One thing that Coach Salazar has always told me is, ‘You’re in just as good a shape as everybody else. As long as you’re in it in the last 400 metres, you can’t give up.’
“At first I was a little nervous because this is obviously a really huge meet, but then I told myself, ‘I’ve run 4:32. I deserve to be in this race.’ I felt really good after that point. It was just about being in it and being there to close. I felt really great crossing the line and seeing that time. I was like, ‘Woo hoo! There you go! That’s how you do it!’”
Much has changed in her world since the start of last summer but Cain isn’t allowing the attention and accolades go to her head.
“I just try to act normal and not let the attention overwhelm me,” she said. “I want to stay humble. I don’t want to get cocky with this, but at the same time really enjoy it.
“I’m a Harry Potter nerd and when Haggard comes in, he is like, ‘You’re special!’ and Harry is like, ‘No! I’m just Harry!’ I guess, in a way, I kind of feel like that.
“I’m just Mary.”
Joe Battaglia for the IAAF