By Jonathan Gault
September 16, 2016
Exactly one month ago in Rio de Janeiro, American Abbey D’Agostino fell to the ground after colliding with New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin with just over a mile remaining in heat two of the women’s 5,000 meters at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Unless you were living under a rock, you heard about what happened next: D’Agostino picked herself up and before resuming the race stopped to offer encouragement and help Hamblin to her feet. When D’Agostino fell again, Hamblin repaid the favor. Both women finished the race and were advanced to the final, though D’Agostino could not accept her spot due to injuries suffered in the fall.
The small gesture of kindness between two strangers embodied the Olympic spirit and went down as one of the moments of the Games, with both women receiving Fair Play awards from The International Fair Play Committee.
Now that the spotlight has faded, however, the 24-year-old D’Agostino faces an arduous recovery process. During the race, D’Agostino suffered a complete tear of her right ACL, a torn meniscus and a strained MCL. D’Agostino underwent surgery to repair the ACL and meniscus on September 6 at Boston Children’s Hospital and is just over a week into what will likely be a multi-month recovery process.
Over the phone on Wednesday, D’Agostino provided an update on her knee and reflected on her Olympic experience.
What does the rehab process look like? What’s the timeline?
Being sedentary for this period of time is not anything I’m accustomed to. I’ve never been away from cardio exercise for eight weeks before. But I know that it’s restoring me in a way that was completely necessary and beyond physical…My mom’s a nurse, I’ve been living with my parents [in Topsfield, Mass.,] now as I rehab, and that just makes things much easier right now.
As it last stood with my doctor — I will go back to see him for a two-week follow-up next week — I’ll probably be on crutches for another three weeks, aqua jogging in four to five. I imagine within that same sort of timespan, I’ll be able to implement the [exercise] bike. I’m doing the bike as a form of mobility right now, completely separate from any form of cardio, zero resistance.
Won’t be able to do any walk-running until two and half, three months out. [After] four or so months, regular runs, training, more complete runs. And then he said if I’d be able to, if I really wanted to, needed to, race at five months but of course there’s zero rush on that end. My goals are for the end of June. And it is completely reasonable to believe that I can be ready at that time (over nine months post-surgery).
Going into the Olympic Trials, you had been coming back from that stress reaction injury. In the period after making the team going into the Games, did you feel like you were close to 100% in Rio?
No. I acquired another injury three weeks before [the Games]. It was just one thing after another, as it has been for the past 18 months. (D’Agostino did not want to divulge the specifics of the injury).
It was frustrating but at the same time I had become so dependent on God before the Trials and through the Trials and after the Trials that I was able to receive that information with a level of acceptance that was almost surprising to me. It’s almost like it didn’t really surprise me when I found out that information. But at the same time, the way that I qualified for the games (D’Agostino was fifth in the Olympic Trials 5k but got to go to Rio after Molly Huddle and Emily Infeld scratched) made it clear that I was supposed to be there and it was almost kind of freeing in the sense that I could trust that I was there to race but I had this sense that there was something else.
I was mostly cross-training while I was down there aside from a couple of track workouts before toeing the line. I really just was in this position of total surrender and I think that that was liberating for me because I was prepared for whatever was to come of the race and of my experience in its entirety in Rio.
It sounds like from that it was almost preordained that something would happen the way it did.
Absolutely. It’s hard to explain, it sounds kind of crazy, but I had that [sense]. And the people who are closest to me shared that sense. I don’t know what it is, but the way that I qualified, how crazy that was, it was kind of gifted to me and then I qualify and then get another injury and it was just like why? But at the same time, in my humanness, I struggled with it at first because I knew the next three weeks were going to be really hard. But at the same time I felt this affirmation that yeah, I really am going to be there for some reason other than this race performance.
Do you believe that racing less than 100% with that injury made you more susceptible to the injuries that you did sustain in Rio?
No, no, absolutely different. Different spots, different type of injury, all that.
I’m sure you’ve talked about this a lot since it happened, but what made you react the way you did when you went down in Rio?
Yeah, that’s been the golden question. What I feel honestly is that there is no human explanation for what happened. We are in the most intense, compressed, pressured moment of our careers, arguably, at the Olympic Games. What happened is the complete opposite of what we train for and what’s been impressed upon us all collectively by so many different people.
I’ve had people say like okay, well the way that you’re raised and your character. Okay. I understand why that can be seen as an explanation. But I fully, 100% believe what happened was supernatural and that I was simply an instrument for God’s spirit to work through me. That is the only way I can understand it. It’s so visceral, the response in a moment like that. That’s really just the way that I can explain it.
Were you consciously thinking in the moment, “I’m going to help her up”?
No. It was like boom, next step. I wasn’t even thinking. I can tell what went through my head after I got up and started running again once I realized I was actually hurt. I remember getting up and thinking like, “You’ve gotta finish.” This is it. This is the reason! This is the reason you were here, that was the race right there.
There was a story that one of the chaplains (1968 Olympic 800 champion Madeline Manning-Mims) had shared with me the week before about having been injured in an Olympic Games before and she just kind of blacked out for the last 100m of the race. Her stride changed and facial expression [changed]. She had been limping and then was able to get through the rest of the race completely fine. It was miraculous. And I was just given this conviction that I was going to be okay despite the way that my leg felt.
I remember the last couple years you’ve had to come back from injuries. You made the Olympic team and now you have to start again with another injury comeback going into 2017. Is that frustrating to you at all?
Yeah, it is in the sense that this is not the story that I would have written. I’m human just like everybody else. I know that I’m going to be okay. I believe all of this is divinely ordained and that I need it. It’s not what I want, but it’s what I need and I very much believe that.
Because I’ve learned, and I know I’ve shared this with you before, what these experiences have drawn out of me and out of my heart and how it exposed to me what my relationship is with running. And how easy it is to put it front and center in my life when that’s not really where it belongs, that’s just been invaluable and life-changing. I will only reach my highest potential when it is completely removed from my identity. And the way that I’m wired, the only way that I would have learned that lesson is by having it taken away. And I know that I’m not alone in that experience.
I just feel that God has been so gracious in protecting me from injury for so long, so just now that it’s happened and I’ve realized almost what I was getting away with for such a long time, has made me so grateful for the time He did give me without injury. Just for it to become such a different priority. When it is removed from my identity, I’m almost free doing it. I’m not burdened by it and broken during moments like this.
Do you feel like it takes this injury specifically to have you learn that lesson or have you already learned it?
It’s funny because in my small scope of what I think is best for me, of course I thought I learned that lesson and that was kind of my retort to God. Like, “Haven’t I already done this, been through this before?” But then [I was] in such a clear way reminded that our hearts are so fickle. My heart is, I don’t want to speak for anyone else. In my experience, I know that my heart is fickle. I love running and I’m passionate about it and when it goes well it is so darn easy for me to forget the lessons that I have learned.
So this, I hope and I pray, is an opportunity for complete restoration and complete reprioritization and creating a place where running is permanently removed, where I am complete in my identity in Christ and everything else is a bonus, an opportunity to express gratitude.
Why do you think having running being removed from your identity is so important to you?
Anything that is given a place in your life that it can’t sustain, so money or fame or a relationship, anything that is glorified and deified or is given power that it doesn’t have intrinsically is going to destroy you when it’s taken away from you. And I know that every person on this Earth has experienced that or will experience it in some area of their lives. And this is the place where I’ve experienced it most. It’s my career and it’s a passion and I’ve learned that as long as it becomes the foundation of my identity, I will be unstable and I don’t want to be unstable. Every human needs to be accepted and loved. Those are the two fundamental human needs. And in my faith, I am accepted and loved completely. And so therefore I am set free when I run to do it out of gratitude, not out of fear that I need to do well in order to learn love and acceptance.
With the injuries the last couple years, do you feel like you’re going to change anything in your training routine going forward? Do you feel like any of them are related, that there’s something fixable there?
Yeah, the bone injuries are definitely related. I think a full body reset and time off the pounding for months is certainly going to help but I also don’t want to sit back hoping that that’s the remedy completely. I honestly don’t know what the answer is completely yet. I’ve spoken with many doctors and really put a lot of time and energy already into this. One of the action points for right now is to seek further clarity and working with my coach and New Balance and finding more consistency with my practitioners, that will be key. Looking into different kinds of supplementation. You know, it’s just hard. This is, for distance running, the one piece of the puzzle that just hasn’t been solved yet, is bone injuries, stress fractures. You don’t see muscle tendon injuries popping up quite as much because we just have so many resources at this point.
Was there a moment afterward that really showed you how much the incident in the race resonated among the global athletics community?
I’m definitely not a social media enthusiast. I was not on there, I had no idea until I spoke to my agent and he was just like okay, I just want to give you a heads up that this has gone wild. And it wasn’t really until I started doing media the next day with Nikki, we did about 12 interviews in one day in four hours that I was like, this has reached an audience.
Was it tough or annoying meeting all the media demands that day and the days that followed?
It was not annoying. It was tough because I hadn’t processed it myself yet. Everything happened so quickly and I am very much an introverted, introspective, thoughtful [person]. I need time alone, I need to journal, I need to understand and that takes time. Just by the nature of the situation, I didn’t have the ability to do that and that was okay, but it just wasn’t ideal. I think I was just emotionally very exhausted. And that’s what made it difficult. It was not that I was in any way bitter about the situation. I was not. I was super thankful. I wouldn’t have done it again. I know I have limitations with my energy expenditure and those were kind of tested at points.
Do you find that you are being recognized more after it than you were before, just by random people you might pass in the street?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I found that at home too. It’s funny and I’ve wrestled with that coming home. This is your reality right now. Millions of people across the world have watched this race and I’ve really had to be thoughtful about how to approach those situations gracefully, humbly. I am a pretty private person. I’d love to go places and be a normal human. But at the same time, this is an area to which I was called and therefore I have to rise to the occasion. I’m learning, I’m very much learning how to do that. The more that I discuss it and process it and own it, the easier I think it will get.
You inspired a lot of people, a lot more than I think you would have had you simply advanced to the final without falling. Are you happy with the way your Olympics played out or would you have simply preferred to have flown under the radar and make it to the final without that big fall?
Oh no, I would not have done the thing over again. [But] I’m so thankful to be part of a really amazing message. The fact that a simple act of kindness is recognized on such a deep global level is encouraging because it indicates that humanity seeks after something like that. We see it and recognize that that is what life is about, that there are things more important than gold medals. And I don’t want in any way to undermine gold medals because they’re amazing and they should be recognized and that is largely what the Olympics are about. But at the end of the day, those are just things. And people are not just things. To be able to help and love and serve others is our greatest need. I think it’s cool that people saw that and recognized that whether they had that awareness of what drew them to it or not.
How difficult was it running on a torn ACL? Most NFL players, they go down with that injury, they can’t even walk. You ran a 5:50 mile on it.
That’s funny, I’ve never heard that last split on that mile. That kind of surprised me.
Yeah, I had to look it up.
Well it certainly felt slower than that. It was just unfamiliar. I’ve barely ever played contact sports so I’ve never had an injury like that. It just kept buckling, that was an uncomfortable disturbing almost, feeling. But at the same time I discovered as soon as I started to pick it up, it would start buckling again so if I maintained a certain pace it would miraculously not buckle except for maybe a few times in the four laps. It’s just miraculous, I don’t even know. And it wasn’t until I stopped [after the race] and couldn’t walk without it buckling, I knew it was serious.
Have you spoken to Nikki since leaving Rio? Do you imagine you’ll stay in contact with her?
Totally. I’ve taken like a month hiatus from a lot of communication. I needed to be away from it for a little while. But I have her email address and 100% plan to be in touch with her. It was such an honor to be able to see her race the final and finish with such determination despite not being in top physical condition. I think that will be a lifelong connection.
Note: This interview has been condensed for clarity.