We have seen the future of American track and field, and her name is Mary Cain.
With one lap to go in the women’s 1,500 meter final at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines on Saturday, Cain bolted into the lead.
"At 400 meters, I felt good. I just took it," she told Tim Layden of si.com. "I needed to intimidate. I needed to assert a presence. I was all out."
That’s the sort of talk you expect to hear from seasoned, world-class runners. Half the battle — and much of the fun — derives from psyching out your opponents. Or simply trying to.
But you certainly didn’t expect to hear such talk from Cain. After all, she’s only 17 years old. She’ll be a senior in high school this fall.
But there she was, taking command of the race, flying down the backstretch, wind at her back, pony tail flying, the other runners lagging. America’s best milers, save Jenny Simpson, who ran the 5,000, were just trying to maintain contact. With a teenager.
By the time the field hit the top of the homestretch, Cain was eight meters clear. "I was feeling awesome!" she told Layden. "I’m a kicker. I was running a kicker’s race. I just really wanted that [Team USA] uniform! I wanted my victory celebration!"
About 50 meters from the finish, Cain began to tie up. Her training partner, Treniere Moser, caught her. But no one else did. She hung on for second place after running a 57.5 final lap. Just a few weeks ago, her best 400 meter time was only 55.
Now Cain gets to run in Moscow this August at the World Championships. She’s the youngest U.S. athlete ever to make one of the 14 World Championship teams since the inaugural event in 1983.
After the race, we realized that Cain’s still just a 17-year-old. When asked by Lewis Johnson how it felt to line up with so many great runners, her reply came in an emphatic, single word: "Terrifying!"
She had qualified for the final in a Thursday heat, but by Friday panic had set in. She called her mother in Bronxville, N.Y. "I was crying," she told Layden. "I was like, ‘I’m just a little kid. I’m scared.’ She said, ‘Mary, if I could carry you away, I would. But you would be kicking yourself for the rest of your life.’"
Cain’s mom, who was also a runner, recognized Mary’s talent in middle school. But she and her husband had a dilemma. "How do you make sure that she had the opportunity to do all the things that a high school student does without this becoming a big part of her day?" Charlie Cain asked Jane McManus of espn.go.com.
While watching the London Olympics, Cain saw Mo Farah and Galen Rupp finish one-two in the 10,000. Both run with Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project. Cain wondered what might happen if Salazar became her coach.
Then came the amazing connection.
Salazar caught a YouTube video of Cain setting the American high school 1,500 record in the World Junior Championships in Barcelona last July. Salazar noticed that Cain’s biomechanics were out of kilter and phoned the family to offer suggestions.
"When he actually called, I can’t tell you the level of excitement," Charlie told Ken Belson of the New York Times. "Mary was very excited. It was quite literally the answer to a prayer."
Since the fall of 2012, Cain has trained with Salazar but by long-distance. Salazar dictates practices to an assistant coach in New York who guides Cain through them. That way she has the best of both worlds: living at home to finish high school while being trained by one of the world’s best coaches.
Don’t be worried about burn-out. "The first time we sat down, he said, ‘This is a 10-year program,’" Cain told McManus. "‘I don’t want you peaking at age 16.’ I just take a lot of confidence in that."
Salazar’s been impressed by watching summer work-outs first-hand. "She’s the smartest young person I’ve ever met," he told McManus. "Not just in schoolwork, but in intuitiveness. I’ve never seen someone that learns something as quickly, literally."
Cain already holds every high school record from the 800 to 5,000, some of which had been on the books for over 30 years. Her potential? Unlimited.
"To be honest with that," Salazar told McManus, "I could say we’re just going to see how it goes. Mary knows what I told her. She has as much talent as any young athlete I’ve ever seen running.
"In my life."