Heart of a Champion

It’s not about how you fall. It’s how you get back up.

Last week, after months of training and preparation, Team NB’s Abbey D’Agostino toed the line for undoubtedly the most important race of her career. One of the brightest rising stars in American distance running, the seven-time NCAA Champion approached the 5,000m race with poise and confidence, prepared to compete against the world’s best, but an unfortunate collision with another competitor brought the race of her life to an abrupt (and painful) halt. While falls like hers can be a common occurrence in championship races when runners are tightly packed, her actions immediately after it happened were anything but common. 

 With millions watching, Abbey’s fall resulted in a complete tear of her ACL, a meniscus tear and a strained MCL. While many in her position would be inconsolable, Abbey immediately got herself off the ground – then shocked the world by making sure the competitor she fell with did too. With a broken stride, Abbey visibly battled through the last four and a half laps of the race. As she crossed the finish line, her uncomfortable grimace quickly shifted to a smile of relief.

While Abbey’s selfless reaction to this unfavorable event quickly went viral, surprising and inspiring people around the world, those close to her say they weren’t surprised at all. In fact, Abbey’s coach since 2010, Mark Coogan, believes it’s the greatest, most accurate example of Abbey’s character.

“I am not surprised by her actions at all,” explains Coogan. “That is the Abbey I’ve gotten to know in the seven years we’ve been working together. She has always been a person who puts the team first and I think she felt that everyone in that race was on one giant team.”

Reflecting back, Abbey attributes her actions directly back to her challenges with injury during her 18-month journey to that race.  

 

After finishing her Dartmouth career in 2014 as one of the most decorated runners the NCAA has ever seen, Abbey’s decision to follow her college coach, Mark Coogan, and train with the New Balance Boston team was the predictable next step in her career. However, what she couldn’t foresee at the time was how a series of untimely injuries would challenge, and ultimately reshape, her relationship with running – and eventually affect her reaction to the fall last week.

“Whether I chose it or not, I’ve been put in a lot of injury situations in the past 18 months and what I’ve learned from those things is invaluable,” says Abbey. “One of the most pressing lessons, though, has been that my peace needs to come from something outside of what happens on the track. So honestly, when I approached that starting line last week, I just felt grateful and that I had absolutely nothing to lose. I’ve gotten to this place where I feel totally free when I’m out there racing, which is powerful.”

As part of her race preparation, Abbey prepared for a variety of race scenarios with her coach, including the event of a fall, but when it actually happened, her instincts told her something a little different.

“It’s funny because Mark and I have talked about this scenario – what do you do if you fall? Well obviously you get back up, but then you gradually find your way back to the pack,” says Abbey. “So when I fell, I remember my first instinct was, ‘Get up,’ but then it was ‘We have to finish.’”

Reflecting on the fall, Abbey says it reaffirmed the transformation of her relationship to running in light of her injuries and she looks forward to returning again. 

“Looking back, small details in my training led up to that moment and prepared me in ways I never thought twice about,” says Abbey. “When I race, I compete the best that I can and ask the most of myself, regardless of how the race is going. I think that’s the reason I’m able to come to the start line at peace.”

In the next few weeks, Abbey will undergo surgery and begin a long road to recovery, but if she’s proven anything to the world through this experience, it’s that she’ll bounce back stronger than ever. 

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