Stadium lights shined down on the shoulders of dozens of Olympians at the 106th Millrose Games, but the world-class indoor track meet featured a new star. Her name echoes off the lips of 4,500 fans crowded into The Armory in New York City.
The teenage phenomenon from Bronxville, N.Y., took the track two Saturdays ago at 8:40 p.m., poised to race against athletes nearly twice her age. Moments before the Women's Wanamaker Mile was to kick off, the high school junior waited in the outside lane, bouncing on her feet and grinning. All limbs, with a big yellow bow in her hair, she looked like your average high school runner -- but this was not a high school meet. The adults in the stands paid upward of $165 to be there. The announcer called Cain's name last, and she received the loudest cheer by far.
Many track and field enthusiasts first took notice of Cain last year, after she started working with renowned coach Alberto Salazar. Those late to the game recognized her talent this January when she broke the indoor high school record for the mile, which had stood for 41 years. Or perhaps they learned her name two weeks later, when she smashed the previous high school record for two miles by a mind-bending 17 seconds.
Cain, 16, seems unfazed by her achievements. She's always known she had a special talent. As a toddler on a trip to Disney, she remembers, "I ran away from my mom and I just kept running and running."
Cain's mom, stunned by her inability to keep up with her 2-year-old, knew that the sport was in her daughter's blood. It's been part of Mary's story ever since.
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The gun goes off for the Wanamaker Mile, and Cain looks comfortable. Part of a stacked field -- including former Olympians and world championship contenders Sheila Reid, Jordan Hasay, Delilah DiCrescenzo and Emma Coburn -- the young star shoots to the front of the pack and tucks in behind the pacesetter. There's no hesitation or second-guessing: Cain knows right where she belongs.
The mile is a notoriously tactical event. Victory requires not only speed but the competitive savvy that comes from maturity, experience and patience. The fast pace and tight pack often mean runners have sharp elbows and shoulders set to strike -- dangerous territory for bodies that haven't yet muscled out. In the last 10 years, the youngest woman to win a U.S. indoor mile or 1,500-meter championship was 25.
As the race progresses, Cain falls back into third place, then fourth, then seventh. At this point, it seems the high schooler has been outclassed by older, stronger athletes, and the focus shifts to the women up front.
Then, at the bell lap, with just 200 meters left in the race, her yellow bow bounces nimbly from sixth place to second. Cain finishes just behind Reid, who sets a Canadian record in 4 minutes, 27.02 seconds. Cain closed in 4:28.25, a U.S. high school record and the fastest time run by an American woman of any age in 2013.
Ten minutes later, in the press box, Cain is escorted to the prime seating area, while Reid is relegated to the standing-room section. For a girl who's just achieved a feat almost any professional runner would covet, Cain is remarkably relaxed. "Oh, I get to sit down?" she laughs.
Much has been made of Cain's similarities to a young Mary Decker Slaney. But unlike the athlete famous for throwing a fit after tripping during her race at the 1984 Olympic Games, Cain is not prone to hysterics.
Journalists searching for a story about a pressure-driven prodigy will leave empty-handed.
When a reporter with a furrowed brow asks Cain how she's handling all the attention, she replies, "I don't know. You guys tell me!" with an infectious, everybody-calm-down-now smile. "It's like in 'Harry Potter' when he says, 'I'm just Harry,'" Cain explains. "I'm just Mary."
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Like Potter, Cain has a bit of magic. On her way to the locker room, a pack of screaming teens and tweens, iPhone cameras at the ready, were waiting for their chance to get close to their idol/peer. The girls not only know who Mary is -- they even recognize Cain's mother standing a good 10 yards away: "Your daughter is so awesome!"
After being whisked out of the fray by her handlers, Cain headed to the athletes quarters, where she was greeted by congratulations from the grown-up runners who do this for a living. While the other athletes would head home to training regimens, coaches and sleep schedules, Cain had class on Monday.
"I still have to go to school!" she said. "Every day I'm in school with my nerd friends, and I'm freaking out about my bio test."
Cain's easygoing attitude might be responsible for her success -- a way to save her from the pressure that could make the average 16-year-old crack. It's certainly part of her charm.