Run For Her Life

Peter Westbrook, who fenced on the 1976 United States Olympic Team, explained that fencing teaches people how to lose. It’s a critical lesson, as people will lose, whether on the piste or in their daily lives. But the other half of the equation is that you can’t blame your way to winning. If you don’t like losing, work harder, train harder, push harder. It’s what athletes do because what they don’t want to do it lose. Not if they can help it.

This is where retired professional distance runner Lauren Fleshman devolves from reality and indulges in the fashionable delusion of blame, which naturally gets her real estate in the New York Times.

I was one of the fastest distance runners to never make the Olympics. I’m certain that relative energy deficiency in sport, or RED-S, the same problem Mary Cain encountered, caused me to leave some talent on the table. I don’t mind the missed podiums, the missed chances. What gnaws at me is that nothing has changed. Until we acknowledge and respect that the female performance curve is different from the male version that sports was built on, girls will continue to face institutionalized harm.

Mary Cain was a high school runner, a phenom, who told the story of how Nike trainers pushed her to “suffering from an eating disorder and suicidal thoughts in pursuit of athletic success.” What happened to her was horrific as she as pushed to be thinner until her body rebelled.

In 2013, she was signed by the best track team in the world, Nike’s Oregon Project, run by its star coach Alberto Salazar.

Instead of becoming a symbol of girls’ unlimited potential in sports, Cain became yet another standout young athlete who got beaten down by a win-at-all-costs culture. Girls like Cain become damaged goods and fade away.

She wasn’t just “signed by the best track team.” It wasn’t done to her. Did she not desperately want to be on the best track team? Did she not want to be coached by a star? If not, she could have said no. Instead, she signed.

Millions of young women don’t become star runners and go on to lead wonderful lives. But neither Mary Cain nor Lauren Fleshman wanted to be them. They wanted to be the best there was at running. They wanted to be on the best teams with the best coaches. They wanted to do whatever they could to be the best. There’s nothing wrong with that, but then how does this become the fault of the patriarchy?

We do not currently have a sports system built for girls. If we did, it would look very different — and it would benefit everyone.

The abuse that Mary Cain described has been justified and allowed to persist for decades. It is still a very common practice for a coach to continue milking points out of athletes who are battling an eating disorder, while providing completely inadequate care. It is still a very common practice for coaches to directly create an eating-disorder culture in the name of performance by focusing on weight and appearance.

What does Fleshman mean, “a sports system built for girls”? One where slow runners win? One where the best in the world don’t try to do what they can to run faster, do better, but run pretty much like the middle of the pack but feel as if they run faster?

If sports were built for young women and girls, the focus on weight would be replaced with basic nutrition and RED-S education, which would dramatically reduce injuries and mental health disorders for all genders. Eating disorders are a form of self-harm and should be treated as such, with mandatory reporting to medical professionals for the safety of the individual. In college programs, a nutritionist and a certified psychologist who specializes in eating-disorder recovery should be as commonly available as athletic trainers. Coaches should be rewarded based on health metrics and retention of talent, rather than for cycling out athletes who burn out year after year.

Would Fleshman have been willing to sacrifice winning for her health? If so, that’s a wise choice, and one that should be appreciated. But then she’s off the team, because the sport is about winning, not being a healthy loser. Some will burn out. Some will excel. That’s the nature of sports, not an excuse to complain.

What if her coach had offered her a choice, to do what she had to do to maintain the body type that would enable her to excel and risk suffering an eating disorder, or shake hands and part ways? What if her coach was compelled, by rule requiring him to remove from the team any girl who was at risk for an eating disorder, so that the runner couldn’t make a choice that put her at risk? Would she have screamed discrimination? Would she cry about her agency? Would she demand her right to make her own body choices and take the risk in order to be the fastest in the world?

Coaches are the ones with the power. They bear the responsibility for creating an environment that prioritizes health over performance. If coaches are found to create or contribute to a culture of negative body image or eating disorders, they are committing abuse, and they should be fired.

The lesson, then, is women are powerless and bear no responsibility for their decisions. Given that young girls were involved, their parents must also be powerless, or perhaps merely unfit. Mom and dad surely saw their daughter’s body weight and shape. They likely talked with their child once in a while about how she was doing on the world stage. Nobody saw a problem? Or did everyone acquiesce to the coach since they wanted to win more than anything?

Does Fleshman think the coach was part of some secret male conspiracy to cause harm to women by forcing them to suffer eating disorders? Does she contend Lizzo should be running in the next Olympics? But the coach should be fired for “committing abuse” by doing coaching that produces the best runners in the world. You don’t have to suffer this abuse, but then, when you’re a world-class athlete and the tiniest edge distinguishes the podium from the pack, you want to do whatever it takes to win. You’ve learned to lose, and it sucked.

19 thoughts on “Run For Her Life

  1. Turk

    The coach is supposed to know better. That’s why they are coaches. Second guessing the coach is like second guessing your doctor who recommends x.

    And the coach is supposed to know that girls and boys develop differently as athletes, and that a young woman’s estrogen might decrease, she could lose her period, become infertile, suffer osteoporosis and break bones.

    Parents and child trusted coach to know better. And they were betrayed.

    1. SHG Post author

      If this was about high school cross-country runners, then one would expect a coach to consider his athletes’ wellness as equal to, if not more important than, their achievement. But then, the coach would be the French teacher and not have such Svengali-like control over the students, or be on the cutting edge of physiology.

      But this is about world-class athletes who push themselves to be the best ever. Complaining about the trade-off afterward is facile. And much as parents and athletes trust their coach, it’s not to “know better,” but to win. If their paramount concern was their well-being, they would have stayed home.

    2. B. McLeod

      I don’t think you’re allowed to suggest that girls and boys develop differently. Keep an eye out for the Internet Outrage mob.
      Coaches, of course, like to be able to get jobs, and not be Perskey’d out of them for nonconforming theories or practices.

      1. delurking

        Dude, you are so behind the times. Of course boys and girls develop differently. You just aren’t allowed to treat them differently. If they didn’t develop differently, no one would need to be transgender.

        1. SHG Post author

          Oh you dear shitlord, how little you understand. You believe there should be some logical consistency to intersectionality, which is exactly what one would expect from a cis white male.

  2. Dan

    “got beaten down by a win-at-all-costs culture. ”

    It sounds like someone doesn’t understand what sports are all about. And of course, it’s all about girls (I thought we couldn’t say “girls” any more?), because boys and men never injure themselves by overtraining.

    1. SHG Post author

      She’s a bit vague on what “girl winning” would mean. Is it the person who runs the fastest, or the person who has the best positive body image? Is there some way to run where only girls with healthy estrogen levels are allowed to win? Or does every runner get a participation trophy, followed by all the girl runners singing Lizzo songs?

      1. delurking

        Yes, the piece is a bit of a mess. Ms. Fleshman left Nike in 2013. The first mention of RED-S in the academic research literature I can find is in 2014. Maybe it would have been possible for her to achieve better results on a different diet and exercise regime, but alternative histories aren’t much of a basis for decisionmaking. The reality is that elite college female athletes lose their periods, it isn’t just a small number of people who compete on a world stage.

        But, what the heck, since we’ve decided to deal with the issue of defining “female” for purposes of competition by setting a maximum testosterone level, there would seem to be no problem with setting a minimum estrogen level, no?

  3. James

    There’s more to this than just someone proffering some bs post facto ‘diagnosis.’ Alberto Salazar was suspended by the USADA last month for, among other things, systematically tampering with doping controls and trafficking in testosterone and prednisone. Under his tutelage, Ms. Cain didn’t have her period for three years, and broke five bones just training. You need to understand that with these elite programs, every aspect of the athlete’s training and nutrition is dictated by the coaches, supervised by Salazar and others. These are gifted kids being told that they need to do exactly as they are told if they want to become world class athletes. The pressure is tremendous. You buy into the program or you’re out. It’s not a level playing field. It’s not just the female athletes who were damaged by this program.

    1. SHG Post author

      Doping is a different issue, and not involved here. I’m well aware of the pressure. I’m also aware of the choices these gifted kids and their parents make, and why the pressure is tremendous.

    2. Miles

      The issue isn’t whether Salazar could have been more concerned with his female runners’ well-being. Obviously, he could. But then, who would want him to be their coach if he fielded a team of healthy women who didn’t win? They were, as you note, “gifted athletes,” but so are all the other runners against whom they’re competing. Did they go to Salazar to achieve healthy mediocrity?

      But your argument ignores the point raised in the op-ed, that this is an example of the athletic patriarchy oppressing female athletes. Cain had no period for three years and broke five bones in training. At what point does a female runner assume responsibility for her choice of whether to be healthy or to win? Or are women never responsible and invariably oppressed, no matter what they choose?

  4. Pingback: Mary Cain, Alberto Salazar and Coaching Malpractice - New York Personal Injury Law BlogNew York Personal Injury Law Blog

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