Bronxville teen Mary Cain becomes a middle-distance sensation

Bronxville track phenom Mary Cain's many records include

Bronxville track phenom Mary Cain's many records include the national high school mark for the fastest mile. (Credit: Patrick Tewey)

No telling what Mary Cain's latest pulverization of decades-old school and age-group track records augurs. At 16, still only a junior at Westchester's Bronxville High, Cain has spent this winter season dramatically rearranging the middle-distance landscape, adding four all-time American bests to her resume in a single race Saturday night.

Her 4:28.79 in the Millrose Games women's mile, as well as the 4:11.72 as she passed the 1,500-meter mark, set two high school and two under-20 (junior) records. Those came just three weeks after she shattered a high school mile mark that had existed for 41 years, and three weeks after she crushed a high school two-mile standard -- by a disorienting 17 seconds -- that had stood for 35 years.

Including her long ponytail, the spindly 5-6 Cain is barely more than 100 pounds, but she has appeared fearsome on the sport's horizon, theoretically bound for glory. Already she is being compared to track's most celebrated child star, Mary Decker, who 30 years ago set the first of her 10 world records at 14.

"I don't even know" when her next meet will be, Cain said after Saturday night's race, in which she finished second to 23-year-old pro Sheila Reid, a four-time NCAA champion during her career at Villanova. But Cain still stole the show in the 44-event Millrose Games.

Some veteran observers and coaches worry that Cain might be experiencing a case of too-much-too-soon, as if she were trying to play the One Minute Waltz in 30 seconds. There are too many tales of promising young careers knocked out of orbit by injury, over-training, eating disorders and the complications of maturing bodies.

So public and private advice already is plentiful. During a pre-Millrose teleconference, Oregon senior Jordan Hasay, who had been America's most recent high school girls track phenom -- Hasay ran a 4:33.01 high school mile -- offered that Cain probably should compete at the college level "at least for a while" before turning pro.

But who can know where this is going? Even Cain had entirely different athletic aspirations when she was 10, as a competitive swimmer who wanted to follow in Michael Phelps' watery path to the Olympics. She was a butterflyer until a sixth-grade after-school track program hooked her.

The first time she was timed in the mile, she went 5:47, an age-group performance that would leave any of track's stopwatch-loving crowd misty-eyed and weak-kneed.

In Saturday's Millrose mile field of 14, which featured, besides Reid, top college runners Hasay (who finished 10th), Colorado's Emma Coburn (fourth) and Dartmouth's Abbey D'Agostino (fifth), Cain said she told herself "I deserve to be in this race" and that "it's just about racing" -- not time.

After setting the two-mile mark in Boston two weeks earlier, when Cain finished third behind winner Tirunesh Dibaba, the Olympic gold medalist from Ethiopia, "I was, like, attacked by all these people" jostling to congratulate her, Cain said. "I didn't know what to do."

Yet she has not been especially surprised by her times, she said, "based on how my workouts have gone." She is coached, long-distance, by three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar, who lives near his University of Oregon alma mater.

Salazar met Cain when she competed at Oregon in last summer's Olympic trials -- she advanced to the 800-meter quarterfinals -- and arranged for her to be monitored locally by Manhattan-based John Henwood, a former New Zealand Olympian.

It is Salazar who mentored both the gold (Britain's Mo Farah) and silver (American Galen Rupp) medal-winners in the 2012 Olympic 5,000 meters, and among his contributions to Cain's training is improving her mechanics with better running posture.

Salazar accomplished that via a suggestion from his daughter Maria, an equestrian athlete at the University of Georgia. Maria noted that she and her teammates ride wearing a contraption called "ShouldersBack," and Salazar promptly put the harness on both Rupp and Cain.

And, more than mileage, Cain said, Salazar has worked on her "core" strength, recognizing that the torso is the body's center of power.

So how is she handling the fuss?

"I don't know," she said to a group of reporters during a postrace chat Saturday night. "Pretty well, I think. You guys tell me."

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