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The World's Fastest Women Are Still Being Body-Shamed

Three elite runners say a former Nike coach ridiculed their bodies as a cruel training tactic.

by Hannah Smothers
Nov 15 2019, 8:45pm

Alexander Hassenstein via Getty

A third woman who trained under Alberto Salazar, an elite running coach who led the Nike Oregon Project, says that Salazar’s coaching methods included ridiculing her body and her weight, and forcing embarrassing public weigh-ins. Amy Yoder Begley spent four years training with Salazar—during which time she made the Olympic team and won national championships—before he kicked her off his team in September 2011 for “having ‘the biggest butt on the start line,’” as Yoder Begley told the New York Times. Yoder Begley follows Mary Cain and Kara Goucher, who shared similar stories about Salazar in the past week.

Comments like this were routine throughout Yoder Begley’s time with the Nike Oregon Project, she says. The way she described her experience to the Times, it sounds like one of Salazar’s primary coaching tactics was to harass his athletes (who were among the fastest runners in the world) about their bodies and weight any time they failed to meet his performance standards. “If I had a bad workout on a Tuesday, he would tell me I looked flabby and send me to get weighed,” Yoder Begley said. “Then, three days later, I would have a great workout and he would say how lean I looked and tell me my husband was a lucky guy. I mean, really? My body changed in three days?”

The experience sounds very similar to one Cain shared in a New York Times op-ed last week. Cain, who joined the Oregon Project when she was 17, detailed years of verbal abuse and overtraining to the extent that she became physically unwell; she lost her period for three years, broke five bones, and started self-harming. “Alberto was constantly trying to get me to lose weight,” Cain wrote in the op-ed. “He created an arbitrary number of 114 pounds and he would usually weigh me in front of my teammates, and publicly shame me if I wasn’t hitting weight.” Goucher has also told the Times about these public weigh-ins, and described coaching methods that were essentially bullying and harassment.

Salazar was working with the literal fastest women in the world—a group of people who use their bodies to do incredible things that no one else can—and instead of celebrating their physical ability, he allegedly preyed on their insecurity and used their elite status as justification for tearing them down. Yet, despite how they say they were treated, Yoder Begley, Goucher, and Cain have all described feeling grateful to be on Salazar’s team, and how they loved and idolized him for making them better athletes. “When you’re training in a program like this, you’re constantly reminded how lucky you are to be there, how anyone would want to be there, and it’s this weird feeling of, ‘Well, then, I can’t leave it. Who am I without it?’” Goucher told the New York Times.

That’s not surprising to me, and probably isn’t to the flood of athletes who’ve come forward in the wake of these stories, and who see themselves in them. It’s impossible for me to read these stories and not think about my own high school cross-country coach, who trained my team of 14- and 15-year-old girls to be fast and strong, and also constantly tore us apart. Being on her team was brutal and rewarding. I was never going to be an elite runner by any means, but I’ll never forget the day my team won the state championship. I’ll also never forget the afternoon my coach punished our team with extra crunches and sprints, on the grounds that none of us were “thin enough” to walk around in sports bras in the summer heat. We would’ve done anything for her because she made us stronger and faster... but one by one, most of us quit. We each had different limits to how much we would take before we hated the sport entirely.

Cain didn’t compete for more than two years after leaving Salazar’s team; she ran her first race, a four-mile course in New York City, earlier this year, under training from a new coach. Goucher has overcome her fear of twisting an ankle and derailing her career and switched to trail running. And Yoder Begley doesn’t compete anymore, but was hired to coach runners in Atlanta in 2014. Part of her job entails training elite runners for the Olympics. Her coaching tactics probably look nothing like the ones used to get her to the same level.

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Women's Sports