What's next for Mary Cain?

Able to run with the best in the world at 17, the high school phenom has options

Updated: June 25, 2013, 2:28 PM ET
By Peter Vigneron | Competitor.com

Mary CainKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe question for Mary Cain comes down to whether she should run in college or focus on turning pro.

Earlier this spring, I asked Alberto Salazar when Mary Cain would turn pro.

Cain owns high school records from 800 meters through the 5,000, and she is arguably the best high school runner in U.S. history. If she were in college, she'd be one of the best runners in NCAA history. I assumed that she'd be signing a contract sooner rather than later.

"I think she definitely wants to go to college," Salazar told me. "I don't think she's going to turn professional."

The real question was where she would go to school, and Salazar said he didn't have any idea where that might be.

"Her dad and I have talked at length about it, and neither of us knows if she's leaning to any school," Salazar said. "I have not asked her."

I didn't believe him.

I couldn't imagine Cain deciding to run in college. As a high school junior, she's already beaten several of the best professionals in the country, and her 800- and 1,500-meter PRs (1:59 and 4:04, respectively) are significantly faster than any current NCAA runners. She travels and competes on the pro circuit, and as a confirmed pro, she'd make a huge salary and learn to race against the best in the world.

As a collegian, she would make no money and race against weaker competition. It seemed like a simple decision.

But then a month went by, and another month, and suddenly, last week, Cain began her quest for a spot on the U.S. team for this summer's world championships as an unattached runner from Bronxville, N.Y.

Cain has neither turned pro nor picked a college, just like Salazar said. And if she hasn't turned pro by now, while she is hugely visible to the public and hugely valuable to a shoe company, it seems unlikely that she will this year.

But if Cain wants to work with Salazar and race in the NCAA, there is precedent for this arrangement, obviously. Salazar has coached Galen Rupp since high school, when he was a 13:37 5,000-meter runner who looked ready to skip college for a contract with Nike but spent four years racing for Oregon instead.

"It would be a huge coup if she went anywhere else but Oregon," said tracksuperfan.com's Jesse Squire.

Still, according to Salazar, she'll have options: Several coaches have already told him they'd allow Cain to run for their schools and maintain her current arrangement with Salazar as her coach. And why wouldn't they?

"If I got someone who was probably going to break four minutes for 1,500 meters in college, I'm going to check my ego at the door," Squire said.

And there's reason to think Cain would benefit from the full college-running experience. It's easy to forget what it means to be 17, but few 17-year-olds, even very mature ones like Cain seems to be, are ready to enter the profesional ranks of their chosen career.

Professional runners spend a lot of time on the road, checking in and out of hotels, worrying about contract reductions if they don't hit times or place highly at big races. Even if you're much, much better than your teammates, college running makes all of that more fun.

Instead of traveling to meets alone or with your coach, you fly with 20 people your age. Instead of eating breakfast with your agent, you eat with your best friend. Instead of worrying about a contract, you worry about conference titles.

"I really did enjoy my team experience in high school and in college," said Gabriele Anderson, who ran for the University of Minnesota and will compete with Cain for a spot on the U.S. team in the 1,500. "She seems like she has people around her who can help her out, but losing out on that team environment—there's some memories that she won't get."

Still, there's the matter of her development as a runner.

Would several years of running in the NCAA be a waste of time and effort? Maybe not.

Cain would have likely won the NCAAs this year in the 800 and 1500, but she would have faced serious competition at 3,000 and 5,000 meters: her 5,000 PR of 15:45, set two weeks ago, is nearly 35 seconds slower than that of  Dartmouth's Abby D'Agostino. She could almost use the NCAA as one big over-distance race, where she trains for longer races and learns how to develop world-class 5,000-meter ability to complement her talents as a mid-distance runner.

"You never know when someone like Sally Kipyego is going to come in, and it might take 15:30 to win the NCAA," Squire said.

At the very least, she'd be able to run against the other high school girls phenom, 15:55 runner Wesley Frazier, who is set to attend Duke this fall.

Like a lot of people, I had interpreted Cain's decision to leave her high school team and work with Salazar as an intermediate step toward a big contract with Nike, which employs Salazar as the coach of the Nike Oregon Project, a gathering of Olympians and aspiring Olympians that includes double gold medalist Mo Farah, his training partner Rupp  and a host of others.

After all, the logic went, if she really cared about being part of a team, she would've stayed with the one she had. But there are reasons to think otherwise, and Cain's parents are a big clue. They have limited Mary's interaction with the media, kept her focused on school and competing (and less on time), and they helped select a coach who is world-class and flexible.

Salazar has pro athletes in his stable, but he also guided Rupp through a full NCAA career. So far, they've done a remarkable job of resisting pressure -- at home in New York, from the media, and likely from shoe companies -- without stunting Cain's development as an athlete or, seemingly, as a person.

So I'm going to hedge my bet: I think Cain will graduate from high school, attend college and race in the NCAA for at least two years. Maybe she'll turn pro before the Olympic trials in 2016.

Delaying that decision will cost her money, but I hope she realizes that's OK.

Running in college is fun and, for most people, getting a job isn't. When you're 17, choose fun.

Competitor.com is an engaging, informational and interactive endurance destination for athletes of all abilities. With unique editorial features, up-to-the-minute running news, training and nutrition tips from the top running experts in the industry, running gear reviews and exclusive athlete interviews, Competitor.com provides runners with the most robust content available on the Web.