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Four years later, life changes for runners who shared Olympic moment

Neither Abbey Cooper (D’Agostino) nor Nikki Hamblin has willingly watched the last four and a half laps of their Rio Olympic 5000m preliminary heat on replay.

Four years ago this month, Cooper and Hamblin clipped feet with about 1,800 meters left of their Olympic debuts. They both fell to the track. At first, Cooper helped Hamblin up. Then Cooper struggled and stopped. Hamblin came to her aid.

They finished separately, both more than a minute shy of qualifying for the final. Cooper, a New Englander, later learned she gritted that last mile with right ACL and meniscus tears that required surgery. Both runners were reinstated for the final, which only Hamblin, a New Zealander, started (and finished 17th).

Their moment spread globally, lifted up as a showcase of the Olympic spirit.

Cooper and Hamblin are each in different places now. They both got married in this Olympic cycle. They both struggled through more injuries. Hamblin had a son, Rue. Cooper and her husband, Jacob, moved from Boston to North Carolina for Jacob’s work in psychology.

Each acknowledged that qualifying for the Tokyo Games, had they been held this summer, would have been difficult.

“I still need to acquire another level of fitness to be a contender for the Olympic team,” said Cooper, a 28-year-old who won seven NCAA titles for Dartmouth among indoor and outdoor track and cross-country.

In early 2017, Cooper returned to training six months after her post-Olympic surgery. But she didn’t race on the track until June 1, 2019 and was 14th in her comeback national championships that July.

In those years, she suffered hamstring, Achilles and foot problems, some related to her body recalibrating from the knee reconstruction. She is doing everything in her power to qualify for the Tokyo Games in 2021. She never seriously considered quitting.

“In times of distress, certainly the thought has crossed my mind,” Cooper said. “When I’m battling something for months, and then ultimately have to make the decision that I can’t race and shut down the season, which I’ve had to do a few times. That is heartbreaking.”

Hamblin, 32, raced on the track just once since Rio. After placing fourth in the 1500m in the March 2017 New Zealand Championships, a severe case of plantar fasciitis developed in her right foot. She needed surgery and turned her attention elsewhere.

Hamblin took a job with New Zealand’s cycling federation. She had her son on July 23, 2018. In 2019, she started a traveling, two-year master’s program in sports ethics and integrity: one semester in Wales, followed by Belgium, then Germany and somewhere else for a thesis.

“When I moved overseas, I thought that Tokyo was not going to be an option for me anymore,” she said. “I never made a big retirement announcement or anything like that because I don’t think I’ll ever retire because I’ll always run.”

The pandemic hit in the middle of Hamblin’s program. She’s now in Hong Kong, having moved last month after her husband accepted a job with an international school there.

And she’s itching for races. Hamblin has been healthy for 12 months straight, a rare stretch for a runner who missed the 2012 Olympics after surgeries on both Achilles. She’s getting back into a routine, though Rue still wakes in the middle of the night.

“I still run quite a lot,” she said. “I wouldn’t say anywhere near the elite level I was at pre-Rio.”

In December 2018, the Coopers took a honeymoon to New Zealand. They’re “Lord of the Rings” fans.

Cooper messaged Hamblin on WhatsApp for recommendations. Hamblin asked if their families could meet for lunch. They spent hours together on the Auckland waterfront. The Rio race was not discussed.

“We laugh about how chaotic and crazy the day after the event was,” Cooper said, noting a media tour together two days before Hamblin raced the final. “We haven’t had a ton of time together, but we’re connected by a powerful moment.”

Separately, each runner couldn’t help but be reminded of the race.

Cooper did about one speaking engagement a month while she was rehabbing post-Rio surgery. Usually, the video played as part of her introduction. It’s touching and beautiful, but she preferred to look away.

“It just makes me a little bit squeamish to see the way my knee was contorted and just to see the grimace,” she said. “So it’s a little bit hard for me to watch. Not because I’m upset about it. I don’t tolerate that sort of visual very well.”

After Rio, Hamblin took part in a program where New Zealand Olympians spoke at primary schools. Students saw the replay, but she could not bear to watch.

“For probably about two years afterward, every time I did have to watch it, I cried,” she said. “I still probably haven’t fully watched the whole thing.

“It was an amazing experience to be part of the Olympics, but what I wanted out of that, which is what everyone wants, everyone wants to run in the final. Everyone wants to be competing for a spot on the podium. I wasn’t able to do that.”

With time, Hamblin more strongly embraced the positives from her moment with Cooper.

“If Tokyo doesn’t work out for me, I’m happy with what I’ve done,” she said. “Obviously, I’d love to take Rue and have him to be able to sit in the stands in Olympic Stadium and watch his mom run. I’d love to take my family, but if not, there’s heaps of videos on YouTube that he can watch when he’s bigger.”

Cooper plans to race through at least 2024 but emphasized that her identity is not tied to her performance and whether she makes another Olympic team.

U.S. women’s 5000m running has suddenly become very deep. This summer alone, four Americans have clocked personal bests at least 10 seconds faster than Cooper has ever recorded.

“I wouldn’t still be doing this if I didn’t believe that my best running is ahead of me,” she said. “But it’s 100 percent been harder these last four years than those last four laps.”

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Clarification: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Cooper considered quitting the sport. While the thought crossed her mind, she never seriously considered it.