High school sensation Mary Cain, the junior out of Bronxville, New York, closed with a stride-lengthening rush at last Saturday’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix women’s two mile at the sold-out Reggie Lewis Center in Boston. Her strong final 50 meters delivered her to the finish line in third place, within one stride of Canadian 5000 meter Olympian Sheila Reid, though 25-seconds behind race winner and three-time Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia, herself a former teen sensation dubbed the “Baby-Faced Destroyer” for the lethality of finishes.
Notwithstanding, Cain smashed the 21-year old U.S. high school indoor 2-mile record by 17-seconds (9:38.68). In all, another fabulous performance for the 16 year-old high school junior who continues her assault on the all-time U.S. high school record book.
And yet – yes, there’s an “and yet”, but it’s a good one. Though Mary Cain has broken three long standing U.S. indoor high school records over the course of the still budding 2013 season (unofficial 3000m, one mile, now two mile), her coach Alberto Salazar can still see room for vast improvement. Even a casual fan can see that her youthful physique still exhibits a mix-master, across the mid-line action in her upper body, an alignment which has profound effect on the action of her stride, its length, and overall efficiency.
“What I first saw with her was her shoulders hunched forward,” explained Coach Salazar in Boston. “But we can fix that pretty quick. And that will fix her legs and stride. I was talking to my wife about Galen (Rupp) hunching his shoulders forward, and our daughter (Maria) was listening. She’s an equestrian. She said, ‘Dad, there’s a thing I wear called Shoulders Back which helps us sit straighter in the saddle’. So I ordered it, and it has pulled her shoulders back. Both Mary and Galen run with it now. She still has form to improve. She’s weak on top, but at least it’s an improvement.”
There are many examples of teen sensations who never go on to open division heights. Melody Fairchild, whose 1991 indoor 2-Mile record Cain broke last Saturday, never approached the same level of track success in her post-high school years. More recent California teen queen Jordan Hasay, who famously qualified for the Olympic Trials final at 1500 meters in 2008 as a high schooler, has had a very good collegiate career at Oregon – she won the 2011 NCAA indoor championships in both the one mile and the 3000 meters – but not one that stands out like her high school years. BTW, Hasay and Cain will meet up at the February 16th Millrose Games in New York City over the one mile distance.
There are many complex reasons for teen female talent not to blossom further in running, or any sport, for that matter. Some of it has to do with changes in maturing body composition, the psychological pressure to succeed, and new, competing interests. There’s no telling where Mary Cain is headed. Tirunesh Dibaba took her junior success all the way to multiple world records and three Olympic gold medals. Mary Decker Slaney, perhaps America’s most celebrated teen sensation, captured double World Championship gold in Helsinki 1983 before infamously – and perhaps ironically – tangling legs with another teen wonder, Zola Budd of South Africa, in the L.A. Olympic 3000 meter final.
Noted throughout his own running career – and now as a coach – for his blunt assessments, Salazar believes the future is unlimited for Mary Cain, who, though restricted by Salazar to post-race interviews, exhibits both an ease and charm in the unforgiving glare of the spotlight that suggest that the stage will not be too big for her to handle.
“In the next couple of years you’ll see her become America’s top middle-distance runner, no question,” Alberto asserted.
The weight on her shoulders will continue to grow. But with her chin up and Shoulders Back, looks like she’s prepared to carry that load.