As I turned to page 260, the last page in Lauren Fleshman’s book, Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man’s World, I felt like I had been on a journey with her. A manifesto, her story makes a case that sports systems can no longer treat gender differences with cookie-cutter practices.
Fleshman, a Stanford standout and five-time NCAA champion, owns the distinction of being one of the most decorated American distance runners of all time. She writes from personal experience and the vantage point of an insider. She speaks of her passion and the intoxicating excitement of elite running and what it costs to get there and stay there. In many cases the cost is — quite shockingly – compromised health in every aspect: physical, mental and emotional.
All that glitters is not always gold. The Nike Oregon Project, established in 2001, was the brain child of the billion-dollar brand, Nike, and became known as the most prodigious training program for professional runners. It gained notoriety for attracting the best of the best. Legendary runner Alberto Salazar reigned as captain of its ship, often revealing his dubious character and incorporating questionable coaching methodology.
In 2013, Mary Cain, a sensation at the age of 17, was considered to be the fastest girl in America. She was lured to the Nike Oregon Project, forgoing college, and began her professional running career. She suffered tremendously under Salazar’s tutelage in a sequence of mistreatment that left her ghastly thin and broken. The mindset was “Thinner is better.” Body shaming, weigh-ins in front of her team, and public reprimands for poor performance were integral coaching practices.
It’s troubling, but not surprising that disordered eating became normalized. Beyond the issue of skeletal weight standards, Salazar violated anti-doping regulations by administering testosterone to his athletes. Another female athlete, Kara Goucher, came forward with allegations that she had been sexually abused by Salazar. By October 10, 2019, The Oregon Project was dissolved, and by July 2021, Salazar received a lifetime ban by the Center for SafeSport.
Fleshman addresses the concern of placing vulnerable young women in the care of male coaches who lack understanding of physiological gender differences, yet hold power over their careers. “If you try to make a girl fit into a boy’s developmental timeline, her body is at risk of breaking down.” Low body mass index (BMI) can lead to a loss of menses, along with brittle bones and subsequent injuries.
There are countless documented cases of elite women runners who hit their stride, often before puberty, and hold out for maybe one triumphant season before calamity strikes and their bodies break down due to malnutrition.
Now a 42-year-old and mother of two, Fleshman has courageously found her voice and has made strides to uncover the sobering truth of mistreatment among elite women athletes and gender equity. In order to shine a light on the struggles inherent to women, she pushed to gain a seat at the Nike table and unapologetically stated that a healthy athlete is a better athlete, and that pregnancy should not be viewed as a “severe injury” as previously viewed by Nike.
She humbly shares, “I can’t create policy, or NCAA best practices, or medical guidelines. But I have some ideas of where to start.”
Good For a Girl is how the sport Fleshman fell in love with as a young girl turned cruel for so many young women. She believes that better practices are not only possible – they are imperative.
If you are a woman, an athlete, have a daughter who is an athlete, or someone who cares about all the above, read Lauren Fleshman’s book and become aware. Awareness is the first step to change. And change we must.