One afternoon early last month, Julie Culley sat in her car and listened as Mary Cain’s voice poured out of her phone. Cain, a former high school running prodigy, spoke for seven minutes in an opinion video published by the New York Times about the alleged emotional and physical abuse she suffered while competing for her former running coach, Alberto Salazar, at the now-disbanded Nike Oregon Project elite running group.
Cain said that she had been body shamed by Salazar and that he fixated on an arbitrary weight for her. (Salazar, who is currently serving a four-year ban for doping violations, denied in a statement to the Oregonian that he ever shamed Cain into an unhealthy weight.)
The young runner’s words haunted Culley, an Olympian and former professional runner. It made her reflect on her own career and experiences with toxic coaches in the past.
“My weight was used against me and I was made fun of in front of teammates and training partners and things like that,” says Culley, the director of track and field and cross-country at Georgetown University. “Some of it was on the backend, like, ‘Now that you’ve finally shed all that weight, you look like an actual runner,’ that type of thing, but it was meaner than that, too. There were just some things that will always stick with me, because they were hard for me to handle at that point in my life in a healthy way.”
Cain’s video has started a widespread discussion in running and caused Culley to further analyze her place in the sport. One of Cain’s calls to action was for more women to be coaches or in positions of authority. Culley is one of only a handful of female directors of an NCAA Division I running program.
She wants to be part of the change.
“I think my avenue is and has always been empowerment of young women and this is a venue for me to do that,” Culley says. “And then in doing so, the men that are in our program, I just love being a female presence in their lives.”
Culley owes her decision to become a collegiate coach to another woman—Roberta Anthes, her coach at Rutgers University who encouraged Culley to enter the field. She calls Anthes an “absolutely unbelievable role model,” and credits her for the confidence to lead an NCAA program.
Prior to working at Georgetown, Culley earned All-American honors in cross-country at Rutgers. Shortly after, she spent three years as the head women’s track and field and assistant cross-country coach at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, and later coached at American University under then-head coach Matt Centrowitz, while running professionally.
In 2012, she won the women’s 5,000-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Trials and reached the finals in the event at the London Olympics that year.
According to a 2018 racial and gender report card for collegiate sports, only 180 out of 969 cross-country and track and field head coaches listed under Division I women’s teams are women. Georgetown has a combined men’s and women’s running program. Culley estimates there are about 20 female Division I track and field and cross-country directors in the country.
“I don’t even know if coaching is like my calling or not,” Culley laughs, “but I love it. And I think I’ve learned to find balance with it. That’s been a real struggle. Because coaching just is non-stop.”
She did not take maternity leave. “And this has nothing to do with Georgetown,” Culley explains. “They were very supportive of whatever I wanted and whatever I needed, but in that moment when I was taking over the role, and we didn’t have a staff at that time—there were only two of us. We had to get to work.”
Culley’s second son, Paul, was born last August, a C-section birth that Culley and her husband, Pacers Running owner Chris Farley, planned for the summer so she wouldn’t have to miss the collegiate running season.
That has meant breastfeeding or pumping during road trips, in the back of a bus, portable toilet, locker room shower, or in a public bathroom stall.
Culley believes the sport’s structure in the United States, with a separate championship season for cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track, is unique in that it essentially runs from August to June.
“We’re in a less intense period, you know, for six weeks [now] before it really ramps up with indoor track and then we go into a swing of six months, pretty much racing every weekend,” she says. “Our kids aren’t racing every weekend but our coaches are physically traveling every weekend. And that’s just so demanding from a physical and emotional and mental standpoint and to keep coming back at it, keep coming back at it every single year. You know, other countries look at us like we’re crazy.”
In her role as the program’s director, Culley says she oversees 70-plus student-athletes, three full-time coaches, a graduate assistant, and also directly coaches 21 women’s middle-distance and distance runners. The job can pull her away from hands-on coaching, which may not appeal to some, according to Culley.
“I’m not sure if I would want a director’s job if I had been a head coach and started my family,” she says. “I might have just been like, you know what, like, this is a really good situation for me. But now that I’m in this role, and [raised] my family in the role, like I love this.”
Culley wants the NCAA to conduct research on how to better support track and field and cross-country coaches, and also urges the governing body to invest more in the mental health and nutrition side of collegiate athletics. That way, Culley believes, athletes can get the proper care they deserve. Culley emphasizes that coaches shouldn’t be advising athletes on nutrition when they aren’t qualified.
“I’ve never met a college coach or a professional coach that was also a nutritionist—never met one,” she says. “I became a life coach this past spring … and one of the things we learned in life coaching is ‘stay in your lane.’ … If you don’t have the professionals in the space, then what do coaches do? They start to try to figure it out on their own. And that’s where the whole problem lies.”
The imbalance of female to male coaches in the sport can be glaring at times. Culley has encouraged some of her former runners to become coaches and has noticed that professional running groups are led mostly by men.
Kerri Gallagher, Culley’s former training partner in the D.C. area, says she only had male coaches throughout her career.
“It would’ve been helpful to have a female coach at times to understand what was going on internally, and it would’ve been beneficial,” says Gallagher, a former pro runner, “but it’s a tough thing, I’m trying to avoid saying that male coaches can’t coach female athletes, and I’m not saying that. I was very effectively coached by male coaches, but certainly there were instances where having female coaches would’ve been beneficial.”
Gallagher, who is now the head coach for the men’s and women’s cross-country, middle-distance, and distance programs at Manhattan College, occasionally feels like she stands out while working in a male-dominated field. Whenever a woman is hired as a director, Gallagher takes a mental note. She considers Culley someone she looks up to.
Having women in influential positions in the sport can help female athletes shed the feeling that they don’t belong, Gallagher says. Both believe they can lean on each other during difficult times.
“The story of this story needs to be about more female presence,” Culley says. “And that can be presence in the lives of our athletes. It needs to be presence on staffs across the country. It’s presence in each other’s lives as coach to coach, female to female. It’s about being a great mentor to our male coaches or great colleagues of our male coaches, so that we can continue to like, give them perspective, or teach them to be great.”
In the wake of Cain’s video, several other elite female runners came out with their own stories of being body shamed. Culley doesn’t want to specify when those experiences happened to her, but calls this a “pivotal point in history” for the sport.
Progress to her would mean fewer of these stories. She wants “a more progressive way of thinking” to replace the toxic coaching behaviors that have negatively impacted careers. “You’re not gonna make [kids] soft by talking to them,” Culley says. “You can be hard on them without being abusive to them.” She is thankful to Cain for the sport’s wake-up call.
“I think about how I want to speak to my student-athletes versus maybe how I was spoken to,” she says. “I think it just makes you realize, as we continue to evolve, culturally, that there are things that we’ve accepted for a really long period of time as being standard or normal, but maybe that’s not what we should be accepting as standard.”
This article has been updated to correct the date that Culley accepted her position at Georgetown.