A Father's Focus
Dr. Charlie Cain sat in an empty row at Hayward Field, Alysia Montano's red orchid tucked carefully into his shirt pocket, still trying to process the Prefontaine Classic here on Saturday afternoon when his precocious daughter Mary set another remarkable record.
His cell phone rang. It was his father — Mary’s grandfather — calling from New York.
"Can you believe that!?" Dr. Cain said.
People all across the country were saying that all weekend.
Mary Cain's father, who works across the street from The Armory at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, is becoming well-versed in the world of elite track and field while also being a careful parent.
"It's my job to help her maintain perspective and keep her grounded," he said.
Not an easy task. Mary Cain has become a streaking comet in U.S. track and field in 2013 with a string of national high school records that began with the New Balance Games mile on the Armory track in January.
Here on Saturday, before a packed house of 13,000 on a sunny afternoon of perfect weather, Cain ran in a high-quality international field, outkicked the Olympic bronze medalist (Yekaterina Poistogova of Russia), nearly beat U.S. champion Montano, and hit the finish line in 1:59.51. That made her the first high school girl to ever break 2:00 for the 800, breaking the national record of 2:00.07 set 31 years ago by the late Kim Gallagher of Upper Dublin High in Pennsylvania.
On live TV, Montano took the signature flower from her own hair and pinned it on Cain.
The 17-year-old from Bronxville seemed genuinely shocked and thrilled by her accomplishment. "I broke two minutes!" Cain exclaimed. "I was thinking before the race, 'No one's ever done this before. I'd be the first one to do it, and that's been my dream since eighth grade.'"
Cain said she had asked her coach, Alberto Salazar, if it was realistic for her to run under two minutes, and he reasoned that it was.
The IAAF "A" standard in the 1,500 for this summer’s World Championships in Moscow is 4:05.50, and Cain met that when she ran 4:04.62 at the Oxy High Performance Meet two weeks ago in California. The "A" standard in the 800? 2:00.00.
"Alberto told me he thought based on that I could run 1:58 or 1:59," Cain said. "I knew he was going to say that, but it was also sort of shocking to hear."
Cain turned 17 in May and has another year of high school remaining. All of her early success is fueling speculation that she might turn professional as early as this summer.
Dr. Cain isn't one of those people, at least not yet.
He said he would like his daughter to maintain a balance between academics and athletics and sees advantages in being part of a college track team. Even talk of college, he said, has been shelved until the NCAA's recruiting window officially opens July 1.
"We've been consciously avoiding (recruitment) until July 1," Dr. Cain said.
The Cains were due to fly back to New York on Sunday so that Mary can return to classes at Bronxville. She has several exams in the upcoming week before flying back to the West Coast to run the 5,000 meters at the Portland Track Festival this Saturday evening.
That race is expected to be low-key though would include an assault on yet another national high school record. Cain would like to run fast enough to qualify for U.S. nationals so that she can have a second option in Des Moines later this month if she doesn't make the national team in the 1,500. The USATF “A” entry standard of 15:46 is faster than the existing high school record of 15:48.
Cain followed Saturday's plan perfectly.
"Go right to the back (of the pack),” Salazar told her, “hang on, wait until people die and you'll pass half the field in the last half lap. And that's exactly what she did." Next-to-last at the 400 in 59.6, she nearly negative-split the race, covering her second 400 in 59.9.
"I just hope I inspire future kids now," Mary said afterward. "The barrier's been broken! We can do it!"