BEST OF 2016 | Dartmouth’s Abbey D’Agostino became lasting image of Summer Games
Before the sporting gesture seen 'round the world, Dartmouth alum Abbey D'Agostino had a feeling she’d be part of something meaningful in Rio during the 2016 Olympics.
Not winning a medal, necessarily — D’Agostino, 24, was too young and green to be considered a serious contender in the 5000-meter race at these Games despite her seven NCAA championships at Dartmouth.
Yet D’Agostino, a person of faith, said she sensed she was destined for something. She just didn’t know what.
“I just really felt like God was, like, ‘Well, I have something’ … The minute it happened, I said, ‘Well, that was it.’ After I had gotten up and started running again, I was like, that was the race and now I have to finish it.”
D’Agostino spoke by phone Monday from her parents’ home in Massachusetts, two days after getting home from Rio and less than a week after her collision with fellow runner Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand continues to reverberate on lists of the Rio Games’ best moments.
D’Agostino helping Hamblin up — with Hamblin later returning the favor — was seen as the embodiment of the Olympic spirit. It gained international attention, providing a troubled Games with an unforgettable image of empathy, grit and grace.
At about the race’s 3200-meter mark, Hamblin was clipped and fell. D’Agostino stumbled over Hamblin, her right knee for an instant angling gruesomely sideways. D’Agostino scrambled to her feet first.
Placing a hand on her shoulder, she urged a dazed Hamblin to get up, that they both had to finish. Hamblin shook away the fog. Yes, yes, of course we have to finish, she thought. It’s the Olympics.
Both got up. D’Agostino’s knee buckled, sending her to the track again. Hamblin helped her up. Then her knee seemed to stabilize.
D’Agostino’s coach, Mark Coogan, was on the opposite side of the track when he saw her fall. He slumped to his seat. When she passed his section, he yelled to her that it was OK to stop. But a grimacing D’Agostino kept running — for five laps.
Only later would she find out she had tore her anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus and sprained her medial collateral ligament.
How on earth did she make it more than a mile on a blown knee?
“I literally was praying my way through the finish line,” she said. “I knew my knee felt like Jell-O and it wasn’t right. But I also knew that part of it was having to finish.”
Hamblin was waiting. Strangers when the race began, they hugged when it ended, Hamblin holding D’Agostino up and calling for medical help.
“That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin said to reporters in Rio immediately after the race. “I’ve never met her before. Like I never met this girl before. And isn’t that just so amazing? Such an amazing woman.”
Officials ruled they both were impeded and were advanced to the final. D’Agostino watched Hamblin and a U.S. teammate in the 5000-meter final. Hamblin, her ankle still hurting from the crash, got lapped and finished last.
D’Agostino’s life has been a whirlwind since their race. In the week since the collision, she and Hamblin were presented with the International Fair Play Committee Award for sportsmanship. D’Agostino appeared on The Today Show. She was considered for the U.S. flagbearer for Sunday night’s closing ceremony, an honor that went to gymnast extraordinaire Simone Biles.
D’Agostino said the possibility was “super humbling” and figured even on crutches, they could have made it work. But, with the help of the USA Track and Field, she had already made travel plans home — upgraded to business class so she could elevate her leg. It wasn’t meant to be, she said.
For now, D’Agostino is lining up doctors’ appointments to prepare for surgery, which will probably happen in the next two weeks. She faces a six-month recovery from her career’s first surgery.
D’Agostino doesn’t have an Olympic medal, but she has always had a silver lining. She said the time off might be a blessing.
“This is an opportunity for me to really process what’s happened, kind of let my body completely reset,” she said. “And it’s good for other areas in my life: relationships, maybe speaking engagements and ways of keeping this platform beyond the track.”
None of what D’Agostino did on the track in Rio is surprising to Coogan, her former college coach for all four years at Dartmouth and currently. He said D’Agostino is “a joy to coach,” and the kind of person who routinely lifts others.
If someone was struggling, she would offer advice or a car ride. She was so helpful and encouraging, said Coogan, that teammates would joke about it. “What would Abbey do?” they’d ask.
“She always had a smile on her face,” Coogan said. “I’ve never seen her in a bad mood in practice.”
She and Coogan have already talked about her return to running, targeting the U.S. nationals in June 2017. Tokyo in 2020? Absolutely, says D'Agostino.
Coogan said D’Agostino has a bright future. She was fifth at the 2015 indoor world championships at 3000 meters.
“This is a major setback, but not the end of the world,” he said.
D’Agostino knows this. She is also grateful for the four or five hours she and Hamblin spent together doing interviews in the aftermath of their crash. They got to know one another a bit.
Relationships at the Olympics can be intense, but are usually fleeting. Yet this bond might be a lasting one. They exchanged email addresses. Of course they will keep in touch, said D’Agostino.
After the final, Hamblin was still marveling to reporters at how a fall can actually be uplifting.
“You can make friends,” she said, “in the moments that really should break your heart.”
Above: The enduring images of the 2016 Olympics — Seven-time NCAA champion Abbey D'Agostino collided with New Zealand's Nikki Hamblin a competitor, they helped each other up and finished the raceandhelp each other over the line. (Courtesy NCAA via Twitter)