RIO DE JANEIRO — The trip happened so quickly that Nikki Hamblin doesn’t even remember it. With five laps remaining in the semifinals of the women’s 5,000 meters, the New Zealand distance runner tumbled to the blue surface of the Olympic Stadium track after clipping the heel of a runner in front of her.
“When I went down, I was like ‘What’s happening, why am I on the ground?’” Hamblin says.
But Hamblin does remember a stranger touching her shoulder—U.S.’s Abbey D’Agostino, an accomplished professional distance runner out of Dartmouth who had also fallen as part of the collision, extended her help to the fallen Kiwi.
“Suddenly there’s this hand on my shoulder like ‘Get up. Get up. We have to finish this.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, yep, yep, you’re right. It’s the Olympic Games, we have to finish this.’ I’m so grateful for Abbey for doing that for me. I mean, that girl is the Olympic spirit right there.”
D’Agostino, 24, tried to help Hamblin but her leg buckled, no doubt injured from the collision. But both women eventually stood up and continued the race.
Fifty meters from the finish line, D’Agostino’s father, Eric, was calculating split times for the race when he heard there was a fall. He and his wife Donna looked up at the screen and saw a runner in a blue uniform on the ground. Donna jumped out of her seat in the front row and instinctively wanted to run over to help her fallen daughter.
Mark Coogan, D’Agostino’s coach, watched from a front-row seat near the start of the front straightaway. When he recognized that it was D’Agostino who fell, he yelled to her that it was OK to drop out, and then fell into a daze in his seat, which lasted for the remainder of the race—he didn’t even notice Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana zip by to take the victory in a quick 15:04.35.
“You know that feeling when you stomach sinks and you lose feeling for second? That happened to me,” Coogan says.
Hamblin ran behind D’Agostino for a few meters before D’Agostino waved her on. The American, initially unsure if she could finish the race while clearly injured, winced and hobbled in pain for the last five more laps. Her family, all wearing red, white and blue, watched as the crowd started to applaud D’Agostino’s effort.
“We knew that if she got up, she was capable of finishing,” Donna says. “She had her angels with her and I knew.”
“She’s tough,” Eric says. “She’s so tough and always show it. I knew what was going through her head was, ‘I didn’t come here to DNF [did not finish] this race.’ It wasn’t going to happen. Not today.”
Hamblin crossed the finish line for 15th place in 16:43.61, and D’Agostino finished behind her in 17:10.02, and both embraced at the finish line before D’Agostino was whisked away in a wheelchair for medical attention. Results did not matter on Tuesday morning; both advanced to Friday’s final after a successful protest of the results.
However an MRI on D’Agostino’s right knee Tuesday revealed a complete tear of her right ACL, a meniscus tear and a strained MCL. Despite having a spot in the final, D’Agostino’s 2016 Olympic journey ends here.
“There was about 2,000 meters to go, I was still feeling controlled, and was mentally preparing to focus and maintain contact with the lead group for the final grind,” D’Agostino said Wednesday morning in a statement. “Then in a split second, there was a woman on the ground in front of me, I tripped on her, someone behind me tripped on me, and I was on the ground. 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 was it. “
Even though the two runners share an agent, and D’Agostino’s name has prominent in the track and field community for years due to her her seven NCAA titles won at Dartmouth, Hamblin had never personally met D’Agostino until race day.
“Regardless of the race and the result on the board, that’s a moment that you’re never, ever going to forget,” Hamblin says. “The rest of your life, it’s going to be that girl shaking my shoulder like ‘Come on, get up.’ And I really hope she’s okay. And I know that she’s young and she’s going to have so many more opportunities. And being such a good human being, she’s going to get far.”
“What we saw out on the track today is the real Abbey that I have gotten to know coaching her the last six years,” Coogan says. “To me that 5,000 showed that the Olympic spirit is alive and well. Abbey is great American role model and the type of person we want representing us.”