Mary Cain—who rose to running fame as a teen phenom, turned pro and signed with Nike out of high school, and then called attention to what she called emotional and physical abuse by her coaches—has a new role: CEO and President of Atalanta New York, a professional women’s running team.
The organization, founded by Cain (and operating largely, for now, from the dining room table in her Upper West Side apartment) will be different than other pro running groups that dominate the landscape of elite running.
Atalanta will be a nonprofit service organization. Pro runners will train in the mornings, as elite athletes do, and work for the nonprofit in the afternoons and on weekends. The nonprofit seeks to mentor girls in underserved areas of New York City, with programming around community, education, and movement.
To start, runners will earn a salary of $60,000 per year. They’ll be paid as employees and they’ll get benefits, including health insurance.
The name “Atalanta” comes from Greek mythology and refers to a speedy mortal. Also, the U.S.’s first high-performance team for women was based in New York in the 1980s and had the same name.
Cain was not ready to announce any athletes yet, but she believes she’ll have four or five recent college graduates on the team within the next few weeks, with more pros to join at year’s end when their existing contracts end.
The hope, Cain said, is that their work with the nonprofit will help the runners develop skills and experience to put on a résumé for when their athletic careers are over.
“I’m trying to disrupt the current traditional model of professional teams,” Cain told Runner’s World.
The current model for professional running works well when highly lauded young talents leave high school or college—which is usually just a few select cases. Dani Jones, for instance, won three NCAA titles at the University of Colorado, signed a multiyear deal with New Balance at the end of 2020 thought to be worth more than $100,000 per year, and trains with Team Boss in Boulder, Colorado. She reached the final of the 1500 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and finished ninth.
Similarly, Alicia Monson graduated from the University of Wisconsin and signed with On Athletics Club in Boulder. She made the Olympic team in the 10,000 meters on June 26.
But for those who are solid collegiate runners but not record-breakers or title winners, the terms are much less generous. The fortunate few are looking at deals worth about $30,000 to $75,000 per year for three or four years. The athletes are independent contractors, with no health insurance, and their agents take 15 percent of their earnings and prize money.
Additionally, the brands these runners sign with often dictate the training terms, steering athletes to pro groups in towns like Flagstaff, Arizona, or Portland, Oregon. That might work for young athletes coming out of college, but it’s not always a desirable option for athletes further along in their careers.
In addition, the money isn’t guaranteed. If the athletes sustain injuries or can’t compete a certain number of times each year, their pay can be reduced to nearly zero.
Cain, who was thought to be one of Nike’s more generously compensated athletes when she finished high school, was not running well after four years with the company and likely wasn’t making much money. She can’t talk about the specifics of the deal she had with Nike, however, because she is bound by a nondisclosure agreement.
“I feel it’s ridiculous that we don’t know people’s salaries,” she said.
Atalanta, by contrast, will have to make public its tax forms, which will show what people within the organization are making. She intends to take a first-year salary of $1 while the team gets up and running.
“My whole two-word message for the professional side of this is creating ‘athlete agency,’” Cain said.
A work in progress
Atalanta New York’s funding will come from companies and individuals. The team has three founding sponsors: Airbnb, Nuun, and Tracksmith, which employs Cain as its New York City Community Manager. Atalanta’s advisory board includes Mary Wittenberg, a former CEO of New York Road Runners; Evan Roth, founder of a wealth management firm; and Allyson Felix, a five-time Olympian.
“We’re really proud and excited to support Mary’s team,” Matt Taylor, the founder of Tracksmith, told Runner’s World. “It’s a unique model, both for athlete support and community impact. In order for the sport to grow and thrive, I think we need to keep experimenting and evolving and looking for new models and platforms that can work.”
The sport, he said, has been “stuck in the status quo for two or three decades.”
The team will be coached by Jonathan Green; he coaches marathoner Molly Seidel, who will represent Team USA in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics.
Cain is “100 percent on a mission to bring a [female coach] on as well,” she said. “The reason Jon is our coach is because he is someone who helped me build this.”
Green said in his experience, runners perform best when they have something else to focus on in addition to their training. He and Cain are trying to “create an environment that is best for athletes,” he said, and that will include a dual mission to run fast and grow the nonprofit. It helps, he said, to have “a life outside of running at the end of the day.”
Cain, who had surgery on both hips last July, is back to training herself at a high level and thinks she was in shape to run about 4:14 for 1500 meters before she recently tweaked her Achilles. Her goal is to race the Fifth Avenue Mile in September.
She remains passionate about helping any young athletes who are in a situation similar to the one she was in, when she found herself flying high out of high school and struggling at Nike. She is quick to message athletes on social media and share her phone number.
“It would have been really easy for me to say, I have two dogs, I am very happy, do what every athlete I have ever known does, which is just sit on that,” Cain said. “But I’m not going to just open the door. I’m going to stand there, I’m going to hold it open, so everybody else can pass through it. That’s exhausting, time-consuming, and at times it’s super depressing. I’m standing by the door, and I’m standing by the door until I die.”
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