Runner Kara Goucher reveals dark underbelly of Nike’s Oregon Project

Runner Kara Goucher reveals dark underbelly of Nike’s Oregon Project

On the eve of her 1,500-meter race at the Rietl Grand Prix in Italy, with her final workout completed, runner Kara Goucher lay facedown on her hotel bed as her coach, Alberto Salazar, massaged her legs.

As he worked on her calves and hamstrings, Goucher went over her race tactics in her head, visualizing how the following day’s race may play out. 

Suddenly, Salazar’s hand made it’s way higher up Goucher’s thigh than usual, beyond her shorts.

“Then, without any words, warning, or explanation, his finger went into my vagina. Several times,” says Goucher.

“I lay there, completely stunned.”

In “The Longest Race: Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike’s Elite Running Team,” out now and co-written with Mary Pilon, Goucher reveals the dark underbelly of Nike’s secretive Oregon Project running team — and the abusive and coercive practices employed by the project’s head coach, Alberto Salazar.

Kara Goucher
Goucher alleges shockingly predatory behavior by her old coach as well as discrimination by the Nike team.Matt Nager/Redux

Born in Queens in 1978, Goucher is the daughter of Mirko Grgas, a Croatian immigrant and talented soccer player who won a scholarship to play at Ottawa University, becoming a three-time All-American in the process.

Though Grgas was killed by a drunk driver on the Harlem River Drive when his daughter was just 3 years old, Goucher inherited her father’s sporting prowess. 

After moving to Duluth, Minnesota, she ran her first one-mile race at the age of 6 and won her high-school cross-country championships.

Kara Goucher crossing the finish line.
In 2007, Goucher won the bronze in the 10,000m run at the 2007 World Championships in Athletics in Osaka, Japan.Denver Post via Getty Images

Later, as a student at the University of Colorado, she became NCAA champion in the 3000m, 5000m, and Cross Country.

Her talent didn’t go unnoticed.

After her 2001 graduation, Goucher was invited to join Nike’s elite Oregon Project, in Portland, Oregon, along with her husband and fellow runner, Adam Goucher. 

It was the chance of a lifetime.

Kara Goucher as a small child, with her father
Goucher’s father was killed in a car accident when she was 3 years old.Kara Goucher

The Nike campus at Beaverton boasted the kind of state-of-the-art training facilities that could take an athlete to the very top.

“Everything we’d need to win was at our fingertips — equipment, massages, medical care, coaching — and if it wasn’t, we could ask for it,” Goucher writes.

“It felt like we’d won the lottery.”

Kara Goucher in 1991.
The Queens native won her first one-mile race at the age of 6 years old.Courtest of Kara Goucher

Joining the Oregon Project was meant to be her passport to sports superstardom but, under the tutelage of head coach Salazar, it turned into anything but.

A two-time Olympian and three-time New York marathon winner, Salazar had a reputation for using unorthodox training methods that pushed the limits of what was legal in the world of athletics.

But, initially, at least, it seemed to pay dividends for Goucher.

Kara Goucher in 1991.
As a student at the University of Colorado, Goucher became NCAA champion in the 3000m, 5000m, and Cross Country.Courtest of Kara Goucher

She won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan; took third place finishes at both the New York and Boston Marathons and made the US team for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Things were going well off the track as well. When Goucher became pregnant in 2010, Nike arranged a publicity photoshoot with her. 

“For a mainstream company, especially a sports brand, to put a pregnant athlete front and center was revolutionary,” she writes. “I felt like we were tapping into a community that the sports world had long neglected.”

It didn’t quite pan out that way.

Kara Goucher, Alberto Salazar, Adam Goucher.
After college, Goucher (with husband Adam, far right) joined Nike’s Oregon Project, an elite running team, under head coach Alberto Salazar (center).Courtest of Kara Goucher

“When the image was published, I was surprised to see my pregnant belly had been photoshopped out and non-pregnant abs had been substituted in, while my breasts, which had grown significantly during the pregnancy, were left as they were,” she continues. 

“The combination leaves an impression of a fake body — because it is one.”

Things went downhill from there, she says

When her quarterly Nike paycheck of $81,250 didn’t hit her account in July that year, she discovered her salary had been suspended because of “my ‘absence’ from the competition, and my ‘medical condition.’ Meaning, pregnancy,” Goucher writes.

Kara Goucher while pregnant
Goucher writes that Nike suspended her $81,250 salary because of “my ‘absence’ from the competition, and my ‘medical condition.’ Meaning, pregnancy.”Courtest of Kara Goucher

But the relationship with Nike was the least of her problems.

At the Oregon Project, Salazar’s unusual methods were under suspicion, especially as athletes like Mo Farah were suddenly performing better than ever. 

During the 2011 Prefontaine Classic 10,000 meters race at Oregon Track Club, for example, Goucher watched in disbelief as the British runner surged to victory, breaking the British and European records.

Kara Goucher holding young son Colt at a race.
After her son Colt was born, Goucher writes, she was threatened with a 25% reduction in her Nike salary if she missed a competition.AP

Stepping away from the bleachers, she called her husband and said she couldn’t believe the results that Farah was achieving.

“Do you think they’re cheating?” he asked.

Goucher writes: “Without hesitation, I answered: ‘Yes.’”

Adam Goucher showing off a Nike ad featuring wife Kara.
Adam Goucher showing off a Nike ad featuring his wife Kara.Courtest of Kara Goucher

Suddenly, all of the doubts that Goucher had about Salazar seemed to make sense — the mysterious vials she had seen in team refrigerators, a shadowy man named “Dr. Brown” showing up at races, unmarked prescription bottles, and even secretive meetings between Salazar and Farah that Goucher and other teammates were never invited to.

“Finally, in that moment, I felt my trust in him shatter,” she writes of Salazar.

(Farah has always denied any wrongdoing and has never been sanctioned for any infringement of doping rules during his time with Salazar, although he has admitted to taking performance-enhancing supplements at another time.)

Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.Getty Images

Goucher also recalls how, back in 2006, Salazar had tried to increase her husband’s testosterone levels, giving him supplements like “Alpha Male” and “TestoBoost,” all of which he said were approved by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) — even though they weren’t.

Salazar also, Goucher writes, told Adam in an email that “a recent study sponsored by Victoria’s Secret proves that buying their clothes increases their husband’s testosterone levels by 50%.”

All the while, Salazar’s predatory behavior toward Goucher continued, she claims.

Alberto Salazar
Both the Gouchers gave testimony on Salazar’s alleged misdeeds to USADA — which suspended the coach for four years.AP

On a flight to Portugal for the Lisbon Half-Marathon, the coach allegedly drunkenly quizzed Goucher about her sex life and told her, in-depth, about his with his wife

“Eventually, he fell asleep,” Goucher writes. “When we landed in Lisbon, he got up and walked off the plane as if nothing had happened.”

On the same trip, there was another alleged sexual assault during a massage.

“I had told myself after the Rieti incident that it had to have been some sort of accident,” writes Goucher.  “Here it was, happening again. And here I was, again, trying desperately to believe it was another mistake. “

In 2011, meanwhile, Goucher took part in the 10,000 meters in the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, despite having a stress fracture in her upper leg.

After “the pregnancy thing,” she had been threatened with a 25% reduction in her Nike salary if she missed the competition.

Being away from her family and competing with an injury was hard enough — she finished a distant 13th — but being alone with Salazar, she writes, was worse.

On the flight across the Pacific, Goucher alleges Salazar took to the red wine again and talked explicitly about sex — telling her about having sex in a hot tub with another female runner.

Then, things escalated. Goucher writes that Salazar, the “wine crusted in the corner of his mouth,” made a move on her.

“’We’ve both wanted this,’ Alberto said, propositioning me directly for the first time. He said that we should kiss and that ‘no one would find out,'” Goucher recalls. 

“Before I could respond, he moved his head toward me. I instantly recoiled. ‘You’re drunk,’ I told him. I needed to get away and I didn’t want to wait around to see what he would say.”

Goucher says she locked herself in the bathroom and waited for her coach to fall asleep.

Kara Goucher
Goucher has come in third for women at both the New York City and Boston (above) marathons.MediaNews Group via Getty Images

“I had left my child and husband to be on this plane, to compete while injured, to try and stay in Nike’s good graces. 

“How did I get here? I asked myself. And how do I get out?”

When she told her husband, they both broke down in tears.

Kara Goucher on the Nike jet after the 2007 New York City marathon.
Goucher on the Nike jet after the 2007 New York City marathon.Courtest of Kara Goucher

“Adam was upset, though not at me,” she writes. “He said that he felt like he had failed as a husband because he didn’t protect me. “

Goucher left the Oregon Project in 2011, returning to her old college coach, Mark Wetmore, and giving notice on her Nike contract.

Her last official race as a Nike athlete was the Turkey Trot Thanksgiving run in West Linn, Portland.

Book cover for
“The Longest Race,” by Kara Goucher and Mary Pilon, is out now.

“Twelve and a half years as a Nike runner, more than a third of my lifetime, and it was over once and for all,” she writes.  “I opened up my closet and pulled out every single piece of clothing with a swoosh on it. 

“I had the thought of putting the whole pile in the trash or even having some sort of bonfire in the backyard. But I couldn’t fathom wasting that much apparel. I loaded it all into my car and donated it.“

Free from the Oregon Project, Kara, and Adam Goucher would both be instrumental in bringing Salazar to justice — giving evidence on his misdeeds to both USADA and the US Center for SafeSport.

Alberto Salazar.
Alberto Salazar has denied all the doping claims.Getty Images

In 2019, Salazar was suspended for four years from track and field by USADA for offenses including trafficking testosterone.

Nike closed the Oregon Project that year.

In July 2021, meanwhile, the US Center for SafeSport banned Salazar for life from track and field for sexual and emotional misconduct, as other victims came forward.

Goucher now lives in Colorado with her husband, Adam, and their young son.Denver Post via Getty Images

In October 2021, former Oregon Project runner Mary Cain filed a $20 million lawsuit against Salazar and Nike for abuse suffered during her time there, citing the coach’s obsession with her weight, the public humiliations he put her through, and the resulting depression and self-harming behavior she developed. 

“She also alleged that Nike was aware but failed to intervene,” writes Goucher.

Salazar has denied all doping and abuse claims.

Alberto Salazar.
Salazar was suspended for four years in 2019.Getty Images

Today, Goucher, 44, lives with Adam and their son, Colt, in Boulder, Colorado, and is the co-host of the “Clean Sport Collective” podcast, an anti-doping initiative.  

“Alberto is out of the sport, but I’m still here, running. Through training, racing, putting one foot in front of the other, I’ve found out how strong a person I truly am,” Goucher writes.

“[Running] made me who I am. It’s made me happy. I’m still in love with it. I always will be.”