Why Kara Goucher’s Story Matters
The world silver medalist’s memoir, ‘The Longest Race,’ lays bare why female athletes may never realize their full potential under systems still rife with inequity, abuse, and harassment
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I vividly remember standing on Boylston Street on April 20, 2009, watching the final meters of the women’s professional race. I was new to following the elite side of the sport, but I knew enough to look for one woman expected to race up front. Her name and image were everywhere. Kara Goucher was going to contend for the win at the Boston Marathon—it was all anybody was talking about.
By the time Salina Kosgei, Dire Tune, and Goucher ran by, it was clear that Goucher was going to finish in third place, maybe 10 seconds back, but she was still charging toward the tape like she had a chance. The roar from the crowd was thunderous—so much adulation for the U.S. athlete who had given a thrilling performance. It was the best that an American woman had finished in Boston in 16 years. But looking up at the jumbotron, we could see how upset she was, visibly sobbing at the result. I could understand her disappointment, but the despair seemed excessive at the time. What did I (or anybody else) know? As it turns out, we didn’t know the half of it. We knew less.
In Goucher’s new memoir, The Longest Race, which she wrote with former New York Times sports reporter Mary Pilon, Goucher reveals just what she endured in order to achieve as much as she did in her running career. Among the highlights: making the Olympic team twice, a world championships 10,000-meter silver medal, third place finishes at the New York and Boston marathons, while building one of the largest platforms of any U.S. track and field athlete and eventually leveraging it to advocate for a fairer, cleaner, safer sport for all.
RELATED: Kara Goucher Talking About ‘The Longest Race’
By now most know that Goucher reveals, for the first time in the book, that her Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar sexually assaulted her twice while giving her massages, as well as sexually harassed her while traveling on airplanes to competitions (both times, Goucher writes, he had been drinking and and had taken Ambien). Salazar, who is currently serving a four-year ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and has also been permanently banned by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for sexual misconduct, has denied the doping violation charges, as well as the abuse allegations.
The details Goucher shares about the assaults are horrific, of course. And although they have made most of the headlines since the book was released on March 14, Goucher’s transparency about so much of her career is what elevates this memoir as perhaps the most important contribution she’ll ever make to women’s sports.
For those of us who had closely followed the six years of investigations into Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project, many of the anecdotes in The Longest Race seem unsurprising. We’ve heard stories from other former athletes like Mary Cain and Amy Begley, who have also courageously come forward to talk about the physical and verbal abuse they experienced while under Salazar’s direction. Still, reading the totality of what occurred, who was involved, and how the biggest brand in sports allowed (and even cultivated) such widespread and egregious mistreatment of the country’s most talented female athletes, makes Goucher’s story all the more powerful.
RELATED: Salazar Is Permanently Banned for Sexual Misconduct
Throughout the book, Goucher describes a revolving cast of men at Nike who were largely responsible for fostering a culture of misogyny and abuse, including then-CEO Mark Parker; John Capriotti, who was the vice president of Nike Track & Field (now retired but still a Nike consultant); John Slusher, Nike executive vice president of marketing; Darren Treasure, hired as the Oregon Project’s sports psychologist, although as it turns out, he was never a licensed psychologist; and Salazar.
In one of many disturbing stories, Goucher describes going to the Nike campus 11 days after giving birth to her son, Colton, to resume training, wearing “two sports bras and a diaper under my running tights while completing a timed mile on the track.”
“No one checked in on how I was doing—not Alberto, Darren, assistant coaches, or physical therapists. There was no talk of creating a plan for me that put my health and safety first. Nike was making money by tailoring its marketing to motherhood and femininity, while up close, the story was very different. It was dangerous, and looking back, it makes my heart sick,” Goucher wrote.
As we now know was common practice, thanks to Goucher and other women who have shared their similar maternal health experiences (including Olympians Allyson Felix and Alysia Montaño), Nike had suspended Goucher’s contract while she was pregnant, citing clauses that mandated how often she raced in order to receive her compensation. She felt pressure to get back to training immediately.
Meanwhile, USA Track & Field, the governing body of the sport, had cut off the family’s health insurance because her marathon ranking had dropped while she was pregnant. Slusher confirmed that Nike would dock Goucher $325,000 in pay—even though she had made many appearances on behalf of the brand during her leave from competition—and even allowed Nike to orchestrate her pregnancy announcement for maximum marketing impact. In relaying his decision via email, Slusher had the audacity to describe how he had been thinking about Goucher at his daughter’s first track meet—his daughter had been “amazed” to learn how much Goucher trained.
“The hypocrisy of this male executive thinking of me as a role model to his daughter while also determining that a hardworking female athlete didn’t deserve to be paid during her pregnancy astounded me,” she wrote.
And while Salazar was definitely a creep, making inappropriate comments about the size of Goucher’s breasts after giving birth—for one of too many examples—he was also cruel, controlling, and manipulative. His alcohol consumption was problematic, often imbibing during afternoon practices. Goucher, whose father was killed by a drunk driver and whose mother subsequently devoted much of her life to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, describes a harrowing instance in which Salazar picked Goucher up from the airport while intoxicated. The night before that 2009 Boston Marathon, he kept Goucher out at a restaurant well past the time she wanted to go to bed, drinking red wine and trying to push it on her, too (she declined). He once treated her shin splints with a topical cream mixed with crushed aspirin, which resulted in second-degree burns on her legs. And, of course, he famously distributed prescription drugs to Oregon Project members for performance enhancement, telling Goucher and Cain that they needed to lose weight and thyroid medicine would help.
Goucher’s story is, in the end, a reflection of the failures across all of women’s sports, still rampant today: the abuse, the male-dominated systems that refuse to protect athlete safety or well-being, the problematic corporations that drive these win-at-all-cost practices, the lack of required training, education, certification, or accountability of coaches and other support staff. The list goes on.
And yet, athletes like Goucher have still succeeded at the top levels, despite the burden of carrying so many forms of mistreatment along with them. It makes you wonder how much better these female athletes could have been—what barriers they might have broken—had they been surrounded by people who had integrity and valued athletes as whole human beings, deserving of the basic care and respect that would nurture their talent. So much potential and talent has been lost, careers cut short and replaced by lifelong trauma.
The head scratcher has always been how Nike, the world’s wealthiest brand in sports, with every resource available, believed that the Oregon Project and Alberto Salazar were the best that it could offer the country’s top athletes. And how still, today, despite what we know, the Swoosh still controls the funding of USA Track & Field and the decisions that are made at the highest levels. Salazar is still celebrated as a member of the USATF Hall of Fame. The brand is everywhere, from the construction of Hayward Field to the shoes that proliferate every marathon and local 5K in America (and beyond). Where’s the accountability? Where’s the hope in that?
The hope is, of course, in Goucher’s story—the only way to change anything is to demand better. It would have been far easier for her to quietly retire from professional running and move on. And who would have blamed her? Instead, Goucher has put herself through years of grueling testimony, endured endless backlash and even death threats, and has shared the most painful moments of her life in order to work toward a safer, healthier, more equitable sport for those who come after her.
“If I’ve learned anything,” Goucher writes, “it’s that change starts when good people refuse to stay quiet.”
Thanks to Goucher and all the women who keep talking. Your voices will always matter.