Milligan College hosted one of its annual “Champions of Character” speaking events on Monday evening and the special guest to speak to the female student-athletes was Abbey Cooper (née D’Agostino).
Cooper was one of the most dominate female distance runners during her four years at Dartmouth College, winning seven individual NCAA championships. She is the most decorated female athlete in Ivy League history and was the first distance runner — male or female — from an Ivy League school to win an NCAA Cross Country individual title in 2013.
She has represented the United States in the IAAF World Outdoor Championships (2015), IAAF World Indoor Championships (2016) and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
While it may seem on the outside like Cooper has it all figured out on the outside, she admits that it was not always easy.
At times, she struggled with eating disorders and succumbed to the pressure put on her by others and herself. She also went through a multitude of bone injuries that derailed her training at times. But, coming from a strong Catholic background, she found strength in her faith and put her trust in God.
“The scripture that I kept going back to over and over was in Deuteronomy with the story of the Israelites,” Cooper said. “God gave them the fresh manna that they needed every day. He told them to only take what you need for that day because the rest will spoil. That really spoke to me and I knew what God was telling me. He was saying that he was going to give me everything I needed each day and I needed to do that day well.”
She even had a couple of injuries leadings up to the Olympic Trials in the summer of 2016. A bone injury in her tibia cut her indoor season short, but she was still able to qualify for the Worlds team in the 3,000 meters. She managed to finish fifth at the championships, which were held in Portland, Oregon.
The second injury came just 10 weeks before the trials and she could not run for six weeks. With only four weeks to prepare, she scraped together enough fitness to finish fifth in the 5,000. Two of the runners that had finished ahead of her had committed to running only the 10,000 meters at the Olympics, so Cooper snuck in as the third and final spot.
“My faith was tested to the highest degree during the times where I got injured and had to rehab,” she said. “In every suffering, God is using it to help teach us a lesson. In my pride and my selfishness, I knew I had learned this lesson — but God was just shaping my heart in to keep surrendering to Him. We’ll never be done learning those types of lessons.”
Amidst all of her success and accolades, Cooper is probably most remembered not for winning a race, but coming in last.
In the prelims of the 5,000 at the Rio Olympics — which she was fortunate enough to get to in the first place — Cooper tripped over New Zealand competitor Nikki Hamblin, who had fallen in front of her just over 3K into he race. Cooper was gracious enough to help Hamblin up and attempt to finish the race, limping most of the way.
She did end up finishing, but it came at a cost.
Cooper did not know until after the race, but she had torn her anterior cruciate ligament. Even though she and Hamblin were both awarded a spot in the final due to the incident, she could not compete.
“I had the first part of Ephesians 3:20 written on my hand and it said, ‘To him who is able...’ and when I got up, I knew I was not OK. What happened after that was instant and automatic. That’s how I knew it wasn't me. I believe with my whole heart that it was the work of the Holy Spirit. I’ve lived with myself for 27 years and I know I do not have the capacity to get up in one of the biggest moments of my career on a huge stage and help another person up. He had prepared me for that moment.”
Even though she did not get to compete for a medal, Cooper did not leave Rio empty-handed. She and Hamblin were presented with the Fair Play Award by the International Olympic Committee in recognition of athletes that exemplify sportsmanship at the Olympic Games.
In the official statement released by the IOC said, "The D'Agostino and Hamblin story is one of humanity and sacrifice which has already captured the hearts of people across the globe."
Cooper still runs competitively and now resides in Asheville, North Carolina. She is coached professionally by Milligan’s Chris Layne, after having moved south from her native Boston.
She plans to put herself in the best position to qualify for the Olympics again next year in Tokyo as the trials are just around the corner.