NEW YORK – After making history Saturday at the 106th Millrose Games, the storied indoor track meet, Mary Cain, all of 16 years old, made her way through a deep crowd of reporters.
As she walked towards the interview room, she seemed a bit surprised, saying, "I have a seat?"
You could say that. Cain has more than a seat. She has a throne. Considered to be the United States' most talented young female runner since Mary Decker in the late 1970s, Cain broke her own national high school record in the women's Wanamaker Mile, finishing second with a time of 4:28.25 behind Canada's Sheila Reid (4:27.02). Three weeks ago the junior at nearby Bronxville High School broke the 41-year-old high school girls record with a 4:32.78.
"First I was nervous, this is a huge meet obviously," Cain said. "But I've run a 4.32, I deserve to be in this race. Crossing that line, seeing that time, I felt woooah there you go. That's how you do it."
When Cain was introduced at the 168th Street Armory, the crowd roared for the local girl. "The last 150, the crowd was really going for me," Cain said. "It was a dream come true, really great. Last year I ran the high school mile here and came in fourth. So I'm moving up."
Cain moved on the inside with 300 meters to go to put herself in second. Once she was there, she told herself, "I'm not going to lose my space." She could hear the others breathing behind her.
"One of the things Coach Salazar always tells me is you're in just as good shape as anyone else and as long as you're in it with 400 meters to go, you can't give up," she said. And yes, she did say Coach Salazar.
Cain met Alberto Salazar, the marathon great who runs the Nike Oregon Project, briefly at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. in June. (She failed to qualify for the London Games, but her presence spoke volumes.) Salazar later followed up with a phone call to offer some advice and soon a partnership was formed. Salazar agreed to coach Cain from afar, with another coach supervising her workouts in New York.
Salazar watched the race at home and when Cain slipped back to sixth and seventh, his wife and son started to get worried. "But I said, 'No, you watch, she's going to kick great,'" Salazar told Millrose officials. Still, he was yelling so much his dogs got scared. "I don't think they've ever heard me scream so loud."
"She had a lot of work to do to catch up," Salazar said. "She's so young she doesn't know how to push herself and will fall asleep a little bit. I was a little worried, but I knew she'd come back. Every week or two weeks I get surprised by something she does, something she does in a workout I just go 'wow.'"
Next up for Cain is the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships in Albuquerque March 2-3.
Much is expected of Cain, who of course takes it stride. "It's really humbling to me," she said. Then to explain what she meant, the self-described Harry Potter nerd quoted her favorite tome.
She explained that when Hagrid tells the young wizard how special he is, Potter replies, "No, I'm just Harry."
"In a way, I kind of feel like that," she said. "It's a really great crowd. They were really behind me but I just take it like I have a whole lot of friends here. It's just really nice."