It’s August during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Abbey D’Agostino is a runner in the 5,000-meter preliminary heat. She smiles and waves at the camera as it pans in front of the participants at their starting blocks — a positive, self-assured smile that stands out amongst the competitive grimaces around her. In this moment, she is where all track and field athletes aspire to be — at the pinnacle of their sport in an Olympic stadium.
From injured to inspired
With about a mile to go in the event, Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand is running in front of D’Agostino when she stumbles and falls. Abbey has no time to avoid her, and trips, unknowingly tearing the ACL, MCL and meniscus in her right knee. Her first reaction isn’t to lie on the ground or grab her leg in pain. Instead, she immediately pushes herself to her feet and checks to see if Hamblin — still on the ground — is OK. Abbey helps Nikki to her feet, urging her to finish the race.
Both athletes continue running, now with little hope of placing near the top. Abbey would fall again, but this time Hamblin would be there to help her up and encourage her to keep going. Neither runner would finish close to the eventual winner, but that’s not what mattered. The loud cheers that met D’Agostino at the finish line would be proof of this, along with the hug both Abbey and Nikki shared after the race had ended. At this point, it wasn’t about winning or losing — it was about the perseverance, selflessness and sportsmanship it took for both runners to finish the race.
Race officials would grant Abbey and Nikki spots in the medal event three days later, but Abbey would not compete due to her injury. Although Abbey never got her shot at the medal stand, both D’Agostino and Hamblin would receive the International Olympic Committee’s Fair Play Award. Their story — and the images of both runners helping each other in the heat of competition — would be sources of inspiration and symbols of sportsmanship around the world. President Barack Obama would call the moment “exactly what the Olympic spirit and the American spirit should be all about.”
The ebb and flow of recovery
After falling during the event, Abbey had run for nearly a mile on her injured leg. She had surgery that September, performed by Dr. Mininder Kocher, orthopedic surgeon and Associate Director of the Sports Medicine Division at Boston Children’s Hospital. Kocher would stay connected with D’Agostino and her team throughout recovery and rehab.
Now a year removed from her surgery, Abbey is actively training, while carefully working to regain full strength and flexion in her leg. As she strives to get back to Olympic form, Abbey knows that coordination between her and Kocher is key to her recovery. “He has a large body of experience that makes it so easy for me to trust him,” she explains. “It’s like second nature for him, which is just so comforting.”
But like any recovery from a major injury, there are “ebbs and flows,” as Abbey describes them. While getting back to training in the beginning of May, she strained her hamstring in the same recovering leg. “I know that until 18 months post-op, there are going to be setbacks,” she says. “And that was just one of them.”
Sharing what matters most
Actively working on her recovery is just one of the ways that D’Agostino is taking advantage of her time. Her example of sportsmanship in Rio didn’t simply disappear when the Olympic torch was extinguished and the TV cameras turned off. Abbey is using her Olympic moment to teach others about sportsmanship, perseverance and faith.
“I just feel thankful and so encouraged. I feel so lucky to be part of something that continues to bless and touch people in ways that I never could have imagined.”
Abbey is looking to compete in cross-country races in the near future, once she figures out her schedule and is comfortable with her progress in rehabbing her knee. But at the moment, running isn’t the end-all-be-all in her life. Her relationship with running has transformed. “I’ve been given an opportunity to realize what my life feels like when it’s not within my control … to realize that life can be full without something that I love so much.”
It can be devastating to have something on which you’ve built your entire life and identity taken away in the blink of an eye. But Abbey has branched out from that place of loss and not only grown herself, but encourages those around her to grow. She has chosen not to focus on her misfortune and pain, but to look at the people around her and help them to their feet. In finishing the race, she realized that the finish line wasn’t what mattered in the first place; what mattered is what exists inside of her that got her there.
“Running was a foundation of my identity,” she recalls. “It’s taken layers and layers of injury and trials for me to realize that I need to replace that identity with something more real, and to really be grounded in God and to have this purpose and calling.”
In a way, Abbey has discovered that by focusing on other parts of her life, she can actually appreciate her athletic endeavors even more. “I’ve had time to kind of realign my priorities. When my existence isn’t founded upon this one thing, I have so much more energy to give to it. It doesn’t rattle me when I fail or don’t meet expectations, and it doesn’t inflate me when I’m succeeding.”
Through making it to the Olympics, to her devastating injury, to her moment of sportsmanship and character, one thing has remained constant for Abbey — the drive to always move forward.
“This injury was part of a moment that was so much greater than me. It’s provided this platform for me to motivate, inspire teach and share. I think that has been the strongest aid psychologically and spiritually in allowing me to not just endure, but thrive.”
Learn more about Boston Children’s Sports Medicine Division.