One-on-one with Abbey D'Agostino

by Danielle Okonta | 2/24/17 1:30am

In her final days at Dartmouth, Abbey D’Agostino ’14 was known on campus as the most decorated Ivy League athlete ever. In 2013, she became the first Ivy League athlete to win an NCAA Cross Country National Championship, going on to win six more NCAA titles by the time she graduated.

During a qualifying heat for the 5000-meter run in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, New Zealander Nikki Hamblin tripped, clipping D’Agostino, and causing both to fall to the ground. Rather than immediately continuing the race, D’Agostino first helped up Hamblin and encouraged her to continue. Despite tearing both her ACL and meniscus in the incident, D’Agostino still managed to finish the race. Her selfless action received international praise, becoming a worldwide symbol of what the “Olympic spirit and the American spirit are all about,” in the words of Barack Obama. D’Agostino, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as an undergraduate, returned to campus on Monday to speak to FCA.

How did it feel to be back on campus again?

AD: It was surreal. It will never ever feel the same now that we’re alumni, but we can expect the same things. Things I saw around campus were very familiar — students flaunting Canada Goose jackets, and athletes decked out in their athletic gear. There was a sense of comfort from being able to see the expected and familiar things. My friend Ari [Vailas ’14] ran on the Norwich trail yesterday. The run is called a “Double Norwich,” and it is considered tradition for distance runners on the team. Vailas and I were cracking up because it has not been that long since we graduated, and we almost missed some turns on the trail. We got a little taste of all the different elements on campus.

After tearing your ACL and meniscus in Rio, how has the recovery been?

AD: I didn’t really have a lot of expectations because this kind of injury was uncharted territory for a distance runner. There wasn’t a certain regimen I was following, which meant that I had a lot more freedom, but it was also unfamiliar since most athletes are used to having some sort of regimen for this injury. I have learned a lot throughout my recovery. The fact that I was given approval to race as soon as I am ready is a blessing. The only thing holding me back now is fitness. I am so grateful. I will just continue to take it one step at a time.

What do you enjoy most about competing at the professional level?

AD: I have always known that the desire to run goes beyond the physical aspect of it. After this past summer, I was able to get a little bit more clarity and understanding in my role to utilize this platform as an opportunity to reach people. Whether we like it or not, as professional athletes, we have public personas. We are in the public eye, and that can be used for bad or for good. I want to use that for good and talk to younger athletes about things that matter. Because of the story that has been given, I feel like I have a launch tact to do that.

How did your faith play a role in your collegiate career and your professional career?

AD: It was through many experiences. It was a combination of various aspects of life that were not going the way that I expected, and my way of being just wasn’t working anymore. A lot of that realization was made clear because of the pressure I felt in running. It led me to seek freedom and seek God, forgiveness, salvation and especially identity. More than anything, I wanted to have an identity outside of running, and I was able to do that. Now as a professional athlete, I really can’t imagine conducting myself in my sport or finding motivation outside of my faith. It is the foundation and source of motivation, meaning and purpose. I rely on it in my training and in my recoveries from injuries. It provides me stability through all the unexpected.

As you did in your interview in Rio, how do you share your strength in your faith with others while competing?

AD: While I’m competing, there aren’t many opportunities to share my faith. What happened in Rio was a unique opportunity for me to do so. I was given that chance to respond in an instinctual way which was a product of the Holy Spirit working in me. On a more typical basis, conducting yourself with integrity and doing it well can be such a witness to the gospel. If I’m in a race that isn’t going very well, I have the ability to push through and be resilient and be a witness to the gospel. My faith also affects the way I conduct myself when I win and articulate my elation and gratitude, but I also recognize that it’s not everything. Having that steadiness and exuding that character over time will make a difference.

If you could go back to being on the line on the Rio track, would you do anything different?

AD: I honestly do not regret anything. There are so many opportunities to learn, teach people to talk about values and things that matter. It also allowed to me grow personally by assessing the way I act through certain situations and relying on God through an aftermath that was pretty overwhelming. I think in regards to others people’s responses, that was just a chance for me to wrestle with God. I did get frustrated when I was called an “angel” or commended for my character in doing what I did. That was a chance for me to really extend grace upon another person in a situation given the freedom to have their own opinion but also speak boldly about the Lord, even if it meant embarrassment, or if the other person disagreed or maybe rejected it. That was an opportunity for me to be in some ways persecuted for the sake of the gospel.

Have you used the media as a platform to preach the importance of this sportsmanship or about your faith?

AD: Sportsmanship is not so much the destination or something to achieve but rather a byproduct of having a purpose that is beyond sports itself. When your identity is fixed in something steadfast or bigger than you — that is, God — we are reminded that in each person’s journey, sportsmanship, kindness and character come more naturally if you are given the opportunity to act selflessly. You know that your worst as a person is not based on how you perform. If something goes wrong, you have freedom to act in a manner that is not fear-based or necessary to protect yourself or your performance.

What did you enjoy most about being a student-athlete at Dartmouth?

AD: There were so many awesome, crazy memories, including the little things like bus rides back from track meets. It was so challenging to switch from academic mode to sports mode, but to do that alongside people who were doing it too was pretty nice. It was also pretty big because we are athletes that are non-scholarship. It was a choice to participate in our sport, and that was reflected in our ability to choose to be there every day and do well. I felt so blessed by the community that wanted that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.