Greg Fennell’s IMHO: Despite Injury, D’Agostino Already a Winner

  • United States' Abbey D'Agostino after competing in a women's 5000-meter heat during the athletics competitions of the 2016 Summer Olympics at the Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Valley News Sports Editor
Thursday, August 18, 2016

When it comes to social media, I’m a dinosaur. It’s a comfort knowing I’m not in danger of becoming extinct.

Barry Harwick shares my feelings. He’s no Twitter aficionado — the longtime Dartmouth College track and field coach leaves such duties to younger assistants — but the internet buzz following Abbey D’Agostino’s unfortunate, and now viral, Olympic moment on Tuesday didn’t escape his attention. It couldn’t have if it tried.

The Dartmouth-educated D’Agostino, the most decorated runner in Ivy League history, got tangled with New Zealand competitor Nikki Hamblin during Tuesday’s 5,000-meter heat race in Rio de Janeiro. Rather than get up and finish, D’Agostino — not fully aware of injuries she sustained at that moment — helped Hamblin to her feet, and the two women completed the race. D’Agostino would later require wheelchair assistance from the stadium, having torn two knee ligaments and sprained a third in her own fall.

Video of the moment hit everywhere in the minutes afterward. And Harwick’s phone started ringing just about as quickly.

“I’m not big on tweeting,” Harwick admitted Wednesday, “but apparently it’s exploded beyond belief.”

The world now knows what people in the Upper Valley running community knew a long time ago. Abbey D’Agostino is something special, and not only because of her results.

Harwick has known D’Agostino since she was a high school senior in Topsfield, Mass. No one involved in her recruitment to Dartmouth — not Harwick nor his first-year assistant at the time, Mark Coogan — anticipated the competitive career she’s had, nor the moment the Olympics would eventually provide.

In the six years since, D’Agostino has gone from the nice girl seeking confidence in her athletic abilities to the nice girl who never lost her kindness. The world saw that on Tuesday in a moment that will hopefully define Rio more than the drug cheats, the poor sports and the organizational chaos have.

“We were seeing a young student-athlete grow as a person,” Harwick said. “When she got here, she was very nice, very friendly, but not someone you expected to be the star of the recruiting class, let alone a worldwide star. I think she blossomed under Mark’s coaching and gained a lot of confidence as a person.

“She was immediately the center of the women’s team, such an outgoing, caring kind of person. By the time she graduated, she had taken that caring persona and put it to the height of competitive excellence.”

My personal interactions with D’Agostino have been few and far between, but two stand out. One was at Hartford High School a couple of years ago, when she and two Dartmouth track teammates volunteered to mentor youngsters in an after-school exercise program called Girls on the Run. D’Agostino told me how she enjoyed focusing on the middle-schoolers, helping them at an age “when they’re forming their identity,” she said.

The other was last month, on the phone, a couple of weeks before Rio. D’Agostino recalled the contentment she felt for her experience at the U.S. Olympic trials in Oregon, where she finished fifth in her specialty and gained a trip to Brazil only after two teammates declined their spots to focus on other events.

Spring injuries slowed her training. She visibly strained in the trials final and didn’t land the top-three spot that would have guaranteed Rio right then and there. Even without the events that followed, she said she could live with her trials result.

“I’m a person of faith, and I’ve been given this transcendent peace,” said D’Agostino, who grew up in a Catholic family. “I feel God has handed down the whole season, the way I was able to come back from my stress reaction in less time than from other injuries in the past. That’s an indication to me that I was being protected and prepared for this race.

“I very much trusted that whether I got to go to the Olympics or not, my identity is outside of running. I’m thankful to be there and have the opportunity in place, to actually go after all that. It’s humbling.”

USA Track and Field confirmed on Wednesday what appeared possible in Tuesday’s video. Upon an MRI, officials determined D’Agostino had completely torn her right ACL and meniscus and strained her right MCL. Her season is done.

D’Agostino said she had one primary goal for Rio: “Make the final.” She did; Olympic track officials moved Hamblin and her into Friday’s final race because their collision was deemed accidental. She won’t be able to run, but I hope she’s there to watch.

D’Agostino has one thing in common with Harwick and yours truly: She’s not big into Twitter, either. She has an account (@abbey_dags) but updates it infrequently. One June 16 entry stands out, however: “Pressing forward means looking behind with a smile and with compassion.”

The tweet is linked to an Instagram post that, as of Wednesday night, had drawn more than 1,000 likes and generated hundreds of comments. One stood out for me, from someone bearing the handle wizardsbestfan: “Great sportsmanship in the Olympics, you will come back and win in four years, I hope.”

I hope so, too.

But really, Abbey, you’ve already won. And the world knows it, too.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.