On Track Even Off the Track: Dartmouth Olympians Return

  • Former Dartmouth two-sport athlete and past Olympian Adam Nelson speaks at Saturday’s Dartmouth on the World Stage track and field dinner in Hanover. Courtesy Photograph

  • Former Dartmouth runner and Rio Olympian Abbey D’Agostino speaks at Saturday’s Dartmouth on the World Stage track and field dinner in Hanover. Courtesy Photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/25/2017 12:36:47 AM
Modified: 9/25/2017 12:36:48 AM

Hanover — Abbey D’Agostino returned to Dartmouth a much different person than when she left it in 2014, with a new perspective on life and a story to tell. Adam Nelson returned to Dartmouth with a cautionary tale, one of drugs in sports and the importance of staying on the right path. Both attributed their time with the Big Green as a critical foundation that allowed them to conquer life’s future challenges.

It was just the kind of message Dartmouth men’s cross country and track and field head coach Barry Harwick had hoped for from the extensive list of Olympians and world champions, all Dartmouth alums, that gathered at Alumni Hall on Saturday for the Dartmouth on the World Stage dinner and reception.

“We’ve been talking about this for a while,” said Harwick, emphasizing that the event was a first for his program. “If you ever go to Leverone Field House, we’ve got these Big Green record boards. Right by our offices, we’ve got a list of all of our Olympians. At one point, I was just looking at it like, ‘Hey, a lot of these people are still with us.’ Especially with all that happened with Abbey back in Rio, (I thought) we should try to get everyone back at one time. We’ve been planning this for the better part of a year.”

Olympians D’Agostino, Nelson, Bob Kempainen, Tom Laris, William Andre, Vilhjalmur Einarsson, Gerald Ashworth, Thorsteinn Gislason, Sean Furey, Jarrod Shoemaker, Alexi Pappas and two-time IAAF world cross country championships winner Ben True were the honored guests among the roughly 100 in attendance, including a group of captains from Dartmouth’s current track and field team.

“It’s really special,” said distance and cross country runner Bridget O’Neill, a senior. “I was just hearing stories and so many people came, and yet we all have this one connection that we can find something in common no matter if you’re a thrower or a runner. I think the traditions remain the same, which is really fun to reminisce over their past championships. It’s just as special to me as it was to them.

“It’s always a pleasure to see Abbey (D’Agostino) because we’ve kind of gotten to know her,” she added. “That was something I got to share with my family, watching the Olympics last year, like, ‘You know that girl? She was a ‘14 (graduate) at our school.”

D’Agostino became one of the most recognizable athletes from the 2016 Olympics in Rio when she and New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin helped each other finish the 5,000 meters after an entanglement that left both runners down on the track. The moment was lauded worldwide for its display of sportsmanship and made both D’Agostino and Hamblin household names. It was later discovered that D’Agostino had sustained signficant damage in her right knee — a torn ACL, a strained MCL and a meniscus tear that cut her Olympics short.

The attention, D’Agostino said, has given the former Dartmouth star a platform. She won seven Ivy League titles during her time with the Big Green, becoming the first Ivy League athlete to win the NCAA Cross Country National Championship in 2013. She returned to Dartmouth not as a conquering hero — she won no medals at Rio — but as an athlete with a new look on life.

“It’s just a testament to how much heartbreak and sadness there is in the world,” said D’Agostino, who was one of the featured speakers. “Not to be cynical, but we see something so simple — one human being helping another stranger — and we’re so drawn to it because that’s what we as humans are able to do, honor each other. It’s performance at the end of the day, the concrete accomplishments and gold medals are awesome, but they’re not what really matters.”

D’Agostino said she is still in touch with Hamblin, a product of their shared experience.

“What we experienced together was so powerful and so beyond words, I think we just get it,” she said. “We see each other and we’re just like, ‘How crazy was that.’ ”

D’Agostino also said she’s on track to begin competition this fall, despite a setback in her rehab during the spring. Her long-term goal is to compete again in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Until then, she has a message to spread.

“I think I now have this platform to talk about the intangibles of sports,” she said. “Sport is a vehicle to satisfy a purpose that is so much bigger than us. We learn about sportsmanship forever, and I really don’t think that sportsmanship is not an end goal, it’s really a by-product of believing in something and having a purpose that is beyond ourselves. That allows us to be free in a competitive arena. That’s something I’m passionate about, and now I have a story that I can tell.”

Nelson, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1997, has his own story to tell, one that emphasizes right from wrong and the consequences of taking shortcuts. The two-time Olympian, who both threw and played football for the Big Green, had his silver medal in shot put upgraded to gold nine years after the 2004 Olympics in Athens after the winner, Ukraine’s Yuriy Bilonog, retroactively tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

“One of the things I’ve learned at almost every aspect of my life, also here at Dartmouth, was that foundations are very important and what you choose and how you choose to shape your foundation is going to reflect the quality and content that you produce,” he said. “That’s a foundation that’s carried me through 15 years of post-athletic competition. Drugs in sports is a huge topic today. I have very little tolerance for it.”

Dartmouth, Nelson said, was an environment in which he could athletically develop surrounded by coaches and athletes that shared his same values.

“It’s very important to me,” he said. “There are so few times in life where you get the chance to reach out and speak to a younger demographic that will most likely listen to you. … It’s fantastic. The one thing I can say about Dartmouth, the general ethos and atmosphere doesn’t change. It evolves a little bit, but it’s great to see the great people who want to learn, have a thirst for knowledge and excellence. That makes it fun to come back and talk.”

Nelson now resides in Houston, which was recently devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Though he said his home was not heavily impacted, the community as a whole was still beginning the process of a long rebuild.

“Within a half-mile of my house, there were people who literally lost everything,” Nelson said. “It’s an amazingly sobering experience. … Not to get overly dramatic, had we moved into a different house, some of the other houses that we looked at, we would have been without a house, without power and in a totally different situation.

“What I’ll say about Houston: that disaster could have happened in a lot of different places. I’ve never seen a community, of that size, come together and not see any breaks in the integrity of the system. … In some ways, it’s a different city than before.”

Harwick and the Dartmouth track and field team have a big recruiting event coming up this weekend, one of their biggest of the year. Bringing back Olympic alums, he said, makes the program an easier sell to some of the nation’s top prospective athletes. For current athletes like O’Neill, it can reassure them that they’re in the right place.

“It reaffirms that Dartmouth not only has great academics, but also has great sports,” O’Neill said. “Track and field develops both your academic side and your athletic side. It’s really nice to see how much we support the people who have those dreams come true and acknowledge the hard work that has gone into it.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

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