Olympic Runner Abbey Cooper (D’Agostino): Beautiful Moments from Devastating Falls
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About This Episode
Despite her years in the pool as a swimmer, it was destiny for Abbey to become a runner. Both of her parents were avid marathoners and her mother a triathlete, but it took until high school for Abbey to muster the courage to lace up with them. She joined the cross country team as a freshman in high school mainly because all students were welcome and she didn’t have to brave a tryout. The first day she recalls being so nervous that she could hardly get out of the car. But she was quickly welcomed into a jovial, family atmosphere among the girls on the team and her first two years she experienced one success after another. Unfortunately her final two years were marked by several coaching changes and health issues, but her love of running persisted and she was recruited to run for Dartmouth. She looked forward to working with an entire team of woman who were equally invested in their sport and their studies and came into her first year just hoping to add some points to the team. She never anticipated having the incredible season that she did, which culminated with her qualification for nationals. Empowered her to see her own potential as an athlete, Abbey began dreaming a bit bigger.
The support of her parents, her collegiate coach, and her faith community gave her the resources in every area of her life to flourish. She invested in a faith community through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes which allowed her to develop her sense of identity and purpose outside of her splits and standings. Her coach, a former Olympian himself, reinforced the narrative that they had the potential to achieve more that what they considered possible and Abbey rose to the challenge. In 2012 after her sophomore year, she qualified for the Olympic Trials and says that it was, “like the icing on the cake at the end of the season.” Her underdog status gave her the ability to relax and just enjoy the experience – a posture that she credits with her impressive performance. She qualified for the finals and took fifth place, less than one second away from qualifying for the Games. Even though she was disappointed that she narrowly missed those Olympics, running better than she could have ever hoped gave her a confidence boost and renewed vision for her next few years. “I set my mind on taking it one year at a time and enjoying the rest of my collegiate experience and then going on from there,” says Abbey.
She graduated from Dartmouth in 2014 as the most decorated Ivy League runner in history and with seven NCAA titles to her name. New Balance signed her to their team and she moved back to Boston near their headquarters and, conveniently, her family. But her first few years as a professional were not seamless. For the first time in her career she began to struggle with physical injuries. Stress fractures and muscle injuries plagued her which deeply refined her character as she dealt with her own frustration, anger, and perceived loss of control. Running had become an idol in her collegiate years and it was being repeatedly stripped away. “If running is my ultimate source of satisfaction and identity, then I won’t ever be satisfied,” says Abbey. The challenges recovery built in her a sense of humility about her abilities. Just weeks before the 2016 Olympic Trials she experienced a stress fracture in her shin that nearly removed her from competition. She placed fifth at the trials, but two woman who had finished ahead of her forfeited their spots in order to run the 10,000m race instead of the 5000m and Abbey was granted a spot. More than ever, she realized that her place on the team was truly a gift.
But in the weeks between the trials and the Games while recovering from her shin injury, she suffered a stress fracture in her pelvis. Not wanting to give up her spot, she soldiered on and was restricted to non-impact workouts in the pool only; she wasn’t allowed to run at all until her actual event. Her mental space was one of peaks and valley as she wrestled with her training limitations. She stepped up to the line of her preliminary run not confident in the status of her fitness, but determined to run a race of which we could be proud. As 5000m races typically go, the pack started at a conservative pace, but picked up speed abruptly around the 3000m mark. This sudden pace change caused a collision in front of her tripping New Zeeland runner Nikki Hamblin who caught Abbey’s foot under her as she fell. Both women ended up in a pile on the ground, but rather than continue on with her race Abbey made the split second decision to run backwards towards Nikki to encourage her to get up and finish. The two woman proceeded together, despite the fact that Abbey was visibly injured. She would later learn that this fall had torn her ACL and meniscus, an injury that she is still recovering from today. The woman embraced at the finish line and video footage of the event immediately went viral. Abbey had absolutely no idea that anyone would see what happened on the track that day, as preliminary races harder garner any attention, but her sense of sportsmanship and unity was praised as “The Most Beautiful Moment” of the Olympics. Around the world her actions were applauded, but she says, “I was just thankful to be an instrument in the larger story that the Lord was telling.”
Earlier in the week before that race she had heard a story from Olympic chaplain and former distance runner, Madeline Manning. Madeline shared about a time that she got hurt during a race and instinctually prayed for help to finish. She doesn’t remember the last 100m of the race, but knows that God carried her through the end. Madeline shared a verse from Ephesians with the athletes present at her session and Abbey held on to that story and even had the verse written on her hand during that preliminary race. When she fell, she instantly thought of Madeline, thought of that verse, and without hesitation went back to her competitor because it was the right thing to do. The media attention and publicity was overwhelming for both woman, but has been an incredible part of Abbey’s story and has given her a platform to share about her faith and the values that she believes to be at the core of the Olympics.
The past two years Abbey has been working to regain her strength, balance, and stamina after undergoing surgery to repair the damage done by that fall. At times she still faces frustration at the pace of recovery, but is confident that she will work her way back to Olympic standard in time for the 2020 Olympic Trials even if it’s not how she envisions the journey. “God can take our dreams and reroute them for His glory and our ultimate benefit,” says Abbey. To younger athletes she shares this advice: “Be sure that you’re cultivating joy in your pursuit.” Sport needs to remain fun, a passion, and with the richness that comes from knowing worth and purpose. She advises athletes to not try to do too much too soon, saying, “so much of success if just layers of consistency.” Through it all, she can testify to the fact that challenges will inevitably come, “so the earlier you can start finding your identity in the right things, the better.” Abbey is on her way to the trials for the 2020 Summer Olympics, so be sure to follow her recovery on Instagram, Twitter , and Facebook so you can cheer her on.