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Big news morning in the US
by on Friday, November 15, 2013  (4 comments)

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Going pro

Two big news headlines coming out of the US this morning.

First, in news that should surprise approximately nobody, Mary Cain is going pro after graduating high school. If you couldn't see this coming, you weren't paying attention. She wasn't running for her high school. She was already on a pro schedule. She was already being coached by Alberto Salazar. Why would she go from that to running for a collegiate team? Instead, she will be joining AlSal's group in Oregon upon finishing high school.

Is she ready to go pro? On basically a pro schedule this year, she did quite well for herself. It will be interesting to see how this turns out for her.

Second, Portland, Oregon will host the World Indoor Track & Field Championships in 2016. While the chances are probably slim, this makes me want to plan a road trip to Oregon. For the record, the last senior world championship (not counting the Olympics, which is a de facto world championship event) held in the United States was 1992 World Cross in Boston.

What are your thoughts? Is Mary Cain ready to go pro? Is it a good move by her or a mistake? Are you excited to see World Indoors come to the United States? Are you thinking about going?

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4 comments
Andrew A.:

Indoor track is of little interest to me and thus so is World Indoors. I consider indoor track an all-but-dead anachronism in the U.S. outside of the northeast. In a way, I think it might hurt the sport on the college level by burdening so many programs with the expense of an additional travel schedule for a season of marginal benefit. World Indoors is just going to be lost among the major televised sports here, the best time to hold the meet for a televised audience might be the three weekends surrounding the Super Bowl. This meet will be held in the thick of the college basketball postseason. What viewership would rather watch what is usually a poorly presented sport with lots of down time in a disjointed broadcast over a dynamic sport with numerous compelling competitions presented really well? The sport is not all about the U.S. yet it does need the U.S. television market to thrive. It's not bad that the U.S. got this meet -- and hopefully it's really just a stepping-stone to successfully bidding for World Cross or World Outdoors -- yet I as a lifelong fan of the sport am uninterested and am not likely to watch.

Though there are notable differences in their respective progressions to the same age, Cain reminds me too much of Webb: not ready to be a pro. I can see it in her face in the press conference making the announcement, she lacks the maturity, the grounding to handle the various factors and thrive. Like most Americans her age, she's still just a kid. I've never seen that from Felix, someone she cited as consulting about this decision. About anyone can get hot for a season following a given plan for success, it takes more to maintain that consistently for 3-4 seasons. You get a much better support network in the major college setting. I think (at least) a couple seasons in college would instruct racing to win from multiple scenarios with much lower pressure to perform, on top of a number of other factors feeding the maturation process. That is largely what Webb lacked in his development, to my eye. It has worked out well for Rupp though he did more of a hybrid approach, racing in college with Salazar as his coach. However, Salazar does not have as good of a track record working with women long-term. All that said, I can be glad she will not be racing for the Ducks.

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Ryan:

As usual, very good thoughts. While I would be much more interested in an Outdoor Worlds and would likely consider it a can't miss opportunity, I do admit that even an Indoor Worlds has me interested. I, for one, may be thinking of a trip to Portland. I probably won't turn my life upside down to do it but, if I can find a way without it getting too expensive or disrupting, I may do it.

As for Cain, I see what you're talking about. It's easy to have a breakout season. It's harder, especially for younger athletes, to follow that up year after year to build a career. I also see some of that "just a kid" in her but I also see some maturity beyond her years, both in racing strategy and in her interviews.

As for the benefits of college, I'm a bit split. She's already competitive with professional athletes. Obviously, on the world stage, she's not to the point of battling to win but there are only a few Americans who I would say are clearly ahead of her at this point. She's already been beating up on collegiate athletes, even beating All-Americans fairly solidly. Supposing she can continue running at least at the level she did this year, if not continue to improve, how much competition is she going to experience at the collegiate level? How much practice will running at the collegiate level give her in winning from multiple scenarios? She might get more practice in running to win from multiple scenarios by running the pro races at events like the Cardinal Invite, Mt. Sac Relays, etc.

Also, how much less pressure will be on her? She's already a high profile athlete and the pressure, at least to some extent, will follow her no matter where she goes. Possibly even more so if she went to Oregon, which would have been the most likely place for her to land. It seems like AlSal has the ability to shield his runners from sponsor pressures (at least) when needed.

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Andrew A.:

I would be more motivated to go see even the World Road Race champs than I am to see World Indoors. And Portland actually interests me as a destination, though that puts me in the minority and likely outside of the main view of the typical (rich) athletics fan tourist. It almost seems like awarding the bid to Portland is setting it up to fail.

Actually, I saw a more apt comparison to Cain from someone we both esteem highly, Vern Gambetta: Freddy Adu. He was the surest of next big things for U.S. soccer and he has just flopped, he was not developed well in the pro ranks despite plenty of motivation to nurture his talent. While this is an obvious move once Salazar -- about the most controlling coach in the U.S. -- got his hooks into her, I still do not see it as her best possible move. Sally Kipyego was not above practically dominating the college scene. Even the most brilliant U.S. female youth runner before Cain, Mary Decker Slaney, who was just as competitive with pro athletes, competed in college. My generation's great medal hope in middle distances, Suzy Favor Hamilton, went to college and dominated. Also, being a collegiate athlete does not in any way preclude one from running in the special invite sections -- aka pro races -- at Mt. SAC, Cardinal Invite, etc. What should she possibly have lost by going a year or two against college competition, other than a close connection to Salazar and Nike?

How would she have "much less pressure"? As long as we are talking about what's ideal, why go with what seems most likely? Go somewhere like Oregon State, Indiana, or Virginia and in essence say, "I can succeed as well here as anywhere else, I want to be the one to help lift this program to prominence." As long as it is a program with good coaching, she would develop just fine. There are plenty of fitting college programs she could have chosen that would have brought zero sponsor pressures. Instead she gets/has to be all about herself, all the time. She's doing this because that was the plan all along in connecting with Salazar, who as a Nike employee actually has little power at all to shield her from sponsor pressures. Without Nike there is no NOP, and he knows that.

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Ryan:

I do understand your comments about World Indoors. Almost any other world championship would interest me more than indoors. Just the nature of the sport. The stars almost completely skip the indoor season. It's one or two stars and the B team. That said, I think it would be fascinating to see the atmosphere and see how the meet runs. Also, the world's B team is still a pretty good list of athletes. Besides, as with you, Portland to me seems like an interesting city to visit. I do worry about its ability to succeed. On the competitive field, I'm sure it will be a great, excellently run event. Outside of that, I'm not sure how it will go.

As for Cain, I see your point. You know I'm a great fan of Suzy and the way she dominated collegiate running was astounding. I guess the question is did it best prepare her to compete at the world level? It's hard to say. She did very well for herself but she never quite made it to the top at the championship events. Was that just how it was going to be or would a few extra years of development at the world level before hitting her peak have helped? There's no way to know for sure of course.

As for the pressure of collegiate running vs. the Oregon Project, I guess it depends. Eyes would have been on her heavily if she went to Oregon. As for going somewhere else, the eyes of the sport would have been on her but maybe not as much around campus or around town. When it comes to pressure at Salazar's group, I guess my feeling is that the pressure is dispersed throughout the group. With Farah and Rupp running well, that buys some opportunity for Salazar to go to his bosses at Nike and say Cain, Hasay, so on and so on could turn into Farah and Rupp but we need some patience. Don't place that pressure on them, give them time to develop. At some other places, she might not be given the same leniency.

Of course, as you mentioned, this all seemed preordained the moment she began working with Salazar. That's why this was so expected. What else was she going to do? We know Salazar wasn't a fan of the arrangements with Rupp at Oregon. He doesn't want to do that again and he definitely doesn't want a model where he has even less control, which is just what would happen at virtually any other campus.

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