RIO DE JANEIRO — We won’t get to see Abbey D’Agostino — whose selfless actions in the heats of the 5,000 meters enchanted a global audience — again at these Olympics.
She won’t get to compete in Friday night’s final of her event and receive what would surely have been a rousing reception from the Olympic Stadium crowd. And she won’t get to complete her dream of going shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the world.
D’Agostino — who gained worldwide approval for her remarkable gesture in helping fallen rival Nikki Hamblin (New Zealand) to her feet after both fell on Tuesday — revealed Wednesday that an MRI had shown a season-ending, three-pronged injury to her right knee:
a complete tear of her ACL, a meniscus tear, and a strained MCL.
She will have to make do with a place in Olympic folklore instead. And all because she disobeyed her coach’s instructions.
“She did pretty much the opposite of what I told her,” D’Agostino’s coach Mark Coogan told USA TODAY Sports. “And I am so glad she did.”
Coogan has known D’Agostino for six years, ever since she joined the Dartmouth team as a freshman and he was the women’s cross-country coach there. From the beginning he marveled at her work ethic but also noticed her kindness.
Everyone notices D’Agostino’s kindness. Talk to people she knows and the word leaves their mouths within the first sentence.
Under Coogan’s mentorship, she became the most decorated athlete in Ivy League history, winning seven NCAA national titles. Over the years with Coogan, she would discuss race strategy, tactics, and yes, what to do if the worst-case scenario of a fall happened mid-race.
“I always told her, ‘If you go down, here is what I want you to do,’ “ Coogan said. “I told her to get up, dust herself off, have a quick look around, and then get right back to running.
“Obviously, she did pretty much the opposite of that — and the world got to see the kind of person she is. She did the right thing.”
Of course she did the right thing. She always does. At her training group — she is a pro athlete with New Balance — the rest of the squad often reacts to mental dilemmas by asking aloud “What would Abbey do?”
At Dartmouth, members of the Athletics Department gathered around laptops and tablets to watch the 5,000-meter heats and held their collective breath when she tumbled to the track.
“First it was ‘oh no,’ followed I think by several expletives,” Dartmouth’s director of track and cross country Barry Harwick said. “Then it was concern for Abbey, and then . . . wow, immense pride.”
Pride yes, surprise no.
For D’Agostino, now 24, was always a little different to other athletes. She was the kind of runner who would win a race and then go to check on teammates who were still running or had finished further back. She was there with words of advice and encouragement.
It appears to have always been that way. Gingy Quinn was D’Agostino’s sixth grade teacher at Proctor Elementary in Topsfield, Massachusetts. “She was the same kind, caring, upbeat young lady then, always the first to help a peer,” Quinn wrote in an email. “What I best remember about Abbey was her positive attitude, willingness to work hard to achieve her best, and her universal kindness to everyone.”
There’s that word again, kindness.
The Olympics may be an awe-inspiring event, but they are not particularly kind. Out of thousands of athletes only a tiny fraction return home with the ultimate dream of a medal accomplished. Dreams spawned by years of toil can be shattered in an instant.
Behind the feel-good nature of this story, that is what happened to D’Agostino. She just chose to make it something different. As she explained in a statement:
“Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way. This whole time here He’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance — and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that [situation] was it.”
D’Agostino’s gesture put a lump in the throat of millions watching, and also NBC commentator Tim Hutchings, a former Olympic athlete for Great Britain.
“You suddenly get this sense that you are watching something incredible unfolding and you wonder how to put it into words,” Hutchings said.
“Her dream was crushed — but then magic happened. She will be a national hero now, an Olympic hero, and rightly so. She showed how a special act can reach people far more than all the medals in the world.”
So what next for D’Agostino? If she wants it, a career as a motivation speaker surely beckons. Once she is done running though, a Ph.D in psychology is likely on the agenda, Coogan said.
“So she can help people.”