Kara Goucher - The Longest Race
(Photo: Courtesy Oiselle)

Kara Goucher on Owning Her Own Story

Sally Bergesen interviews Kara Goucher about the release of her new book, ‘The Longest Race,’ and on finding her voice in a system that dehumanized female athletes

Elite runner Kara Goucher in the middle of the frame in front of a black background

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Editor’s note: This interview includes references to sexual assault.

Kara Goucher is a two-time Olympian, who competed in the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon, and is a World Champion Silver Medalist at the 10,000m. In 2015, Goucher went public with accusations that her former coach Alberto Salazar avoided antidoping rules with elite competitors in the Nike Oregon Project. Salazar served a four-year suspension for doping violations, and is now serving a lifetime ban for sexual misconduct.

In her new memoir, The Longest Race: Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike’s Elite Running Team, Goucher sheds light on her journey through the Nike Oregon Project and reveals what it was truly like to be part of this highly funded, professional running team.

Sally Bergesen, CEO and founder of apparel company Oiselle, sat down with Goucher (who joined Oiselle’s athlete team in 2014, and currently works on the Oiselle Advisory Group) to discuss her decision to speak out, how she has moved on, and what we should all learn from abuses of power.

Kara Goucher - The Longest Race
(Photo: Simon & Schuster)

RELATED:  Alberto Salazar is Permanently Banned for Sexual Misconduct

SB: Kara. This moment is huge. I know this because I’ve seen you, over a number of years, go from resisting a book, to it happening. What was the turning point? Was there a person or moment who made you feel like this was the logical next step?

KG: [My husband] Adam and I had both talked about a book, especially around the Nike Oregon Project. But the personal thing was this: my story was taken from me numerous times, from other people. And interest continued. But I wanted to be the one to tell it.

Also, after the successful conclusion of the USADA and SafeSport investigations against Alberto, which took years, I started to heal. That closure gave me the power to share; the final piece to move on.

SB: Finding your co-author, Mary Pilon, seemed like a really important development. How did you find her, and how did those first conversations go?

KG: She’s a co-author, but so much more. A confidante, a friend, and someone who I trusted to tell the story in my voice. There would be no book without Mary. I never would have gotten it done. I would have focused on the wrong things. She helped me carve out what mattered, and what needed to be in there. She felt just as passionately about the book as I did, which was pretty special.

Mary’s brave, she’s outward facing, and fights for what she believes in. I feel like that’s the way I am, but I’m a little more guarded. Her whole thing was ‘we either do it all, or we don’t do anything.’ I needed someone who was a little spicy. Someone who would say, “Dude, what you went through was really horrific. We need to tell it all, or we’re not really changing anything.”

SB: Sports marketing (or marketing teams within sports brands), can be difficult places. I’ve heard brands call athletes a ‘property’ or an ‘asset.’ Do you think this leads to dehumanization?

KG: You know me well. When I form a relationship, I’m dedicated and loyal to that relationship. When I was at Nike, they called it the Nike family. And the feeling was that these people were going to be in my life forever. It was probably naive or whatever. But that’s also who I am. When I do trust, I trust all the way. And then I learned I was never in a family. There was no family. It was just what could I do for them? When tides were turned, and things were hard for me, there was no support.

If you read my story, and you’re disturbed by what you read, then think about where you spend your money. And don’t let one inspirational commercial or marketing campaign make you forget what you read.

I feel badly that Mikaela Shiffrin faltered at the Olympics. And I feel badly that Simone Biles faltered at the Olympics. But I also think it opens up this conversation and realization that athletes are people. They have a lot of feelings and emotions. They have stresses, and things they love, and things they’re grappling with—just like everyone else.

SB: There is a weird duality. Clearly, Nike has done a lot of good things in the world, but there does appear to be a pattern of not treating athletes as whole humans. 

KG: Nobody’s perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, myself included. In the book, I talk about participating in locker room talk. I’m doing things that I feel gross about; nobody’s perfect. The thing I have a hard time with is there’s never an acknowledgment of wrongdoing from Nike. There was never a statement along the lines of “yeah, the way we treated female athletes who were pregnant was a mistake. And we acknowledge that we did wrong by these women.” Instead it was, “We’re happy to announce that we’ve amended our contracts.”

They should have said, “You know what, we messed up. You know what, you’re right, Alberto Salazar should not be coaching women.” Instead, they just quietly took his name off the building.

Kara Goucher Running Happy
(Photo: Heather McWhirter)

SB: The book release’s media swarm will focus on Alberto being a sexual assaulter. At the same time, in talking with you, I know you don’t want to be labeled a sexual assault survivor. Can you elaborate?

KG: Because that does not define who I am. Listen, if someone out there is a sexual assault survivor and they feel empowered by that, that’s great. But for me, personally, I don’t want him to have any power in my life. I don’t want people to look at me and say “oh she was damaged by Alberto Salazar.” I mean, I could start crying right now. I am who I am. I got through it. I am happy. I am successful. I am fulfilled. He did not take anything from me. So that’s why I don’t want to be thought of as a survivor. I want to be myself; I want to be Kara.

SB: What your book does so beautifully is show how the brain compartmentalizes harm in order to survive. But this can also lead to staying silent, suffering, and delaying justice. Thoughts on this dynamic?

KG: I watched a powerful documentary, Phoenix Rising, about how Evan Rachel Wood fought in California to get the statute of limitations extended.

The fact is, we don’t know enough about how long it takes people to identify, deal with, and truly acknowledge their assault. Unless you’ve lived through it, you can’t understand how complicated it is, how you can try talking yourself out of it…it can literally take decades.

I mean, When Bill Bach (counsel for USADA) told me that what happened to me was assault, I started shaking. Because I always envisioned sexual assault as something violent. I thought what happened to me was just a gross thing that happened, that I wish hadn’t happened. The realization was SO jarring. I cried the whole way home. I thought I was losing my mind. Once that came out, I could never put it back in a box. Ultimately, how everyone deals with it, and when they’re ready—is so different.

SB: Staying silent about harms can also be like swallowing a poison pill. You do it to protect others, but it can lead to your own mental, physical deterioration. Is that what you experienced, and how did you finally process it—deciding to come forward?

KG: I don’t know. But I will tell you this: I didn’t think I would ever say anything because I was worried about his family. It wasn’t until I started working with a therapist, that I realized, wait, my family’s suffering. I don’t know why I was thinking that his family was more important than my family. My child and husband are suffering because I’m not able to be the person I want to be; I’m having this anxiety, I’m worried, stressed. And as you know, there’s shame. I felt like I allowed this to happen, I didn’t say anything right away. I think a lot of victims figure it’s not worth the fallout.

SB: Can we talk about Adam? I came away from the book with a massive appreciation for Adam and his loyalty. I think it takes a really big person to undergo the transformation he did, in terms of being the better known Olympian in the early stages of your career, to dealing with  his own career-ending injuries, and then pivoting to support you. Not everyone could have pulled that off. Any reflections on that?

KG: I have apologized to Adam for that period of time. He was being treated horribly, and he could see through everything. And I was so torn. I was trying to keep Alberto happy, and at the same time, keep my marriage going. There were plenty of opportunities for Adam to get out, but thankfully, he didn’t.

Adam knows everything about me, and he still loves me. That’s scary for some people. When I had to tell Adam, I had this feeling of betrayal, and keeping a secret from him. And that he was going to be so angry and so hurt. He was really fucking mad, but not at me.

SB: Whether it was the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, where you got 4th (a.k.a. “the haunted place”), or your near miss at Boston in 2009, what I know a lot of people appreciate about you is that you take BIG SWINGS and shoot for the top. On the flip side, when things don’t work out, you’ve gone through yawning periods of darkness. Have you ever had times where you regretted taking those big risks?

KG: If you don’t lead yourself to a place where you’ll be devastated if you don’t get it, I don’t think you’re living big enough. It has to mean everything. If you don’t get it, it’s going to hurt so much. What I remember the most about 2016, however, was how loved I felt. There were no strings attached. Everyone was so invested, and positive, but they wanted it for me. And I wanted it for me. Getting fourth will always make me cry because I wanted the outcome to match the love I felt. And my race result didn’t change my relationship with you, or Mark and Heather, or with Oiselle. In the past, it would have changed everything.

In 2009, when I didn’t win Boston, I was shattered. I still remember sobbing outside of Alberto’s hotel room, in the hallway. And a nice couple walked by me, and they were like, hey, you did GREAT. I actually saw this couple later, and we talked about it. But at the time, I was destroyed, and while my family loved me, the people I needed to hear it from the most, the coaches and staff, I didn’t get it.

SB: As you sit here today, at the moment of the release of The Longest Race, how do you feel?

KG: This day’s been coming for a long time. I feel good about the book. It’s accurate, it’s truthful, it’s what happened, it’s been through fact checking and legal. It’s time. It’s time for me to share and move on. Life isn’t comfortable. Life is messy. And if you’re prepared to share the truth, you also have to be ready for the messiness.

SB: Tell us where you’ll be over the next four to six weeks—appearances, etc. You know the masses are going to want their Kara book signed!

KG: Just so everyone knows, I’m playing the long game. So while I have some appearances scheduled, I’m also planning to take a summer break in Minnesota—and then come back in the fall. The story will still be there, and I can’t wait to see and talk with folks.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Oiselle