The 2016 Rio Olympics have provided the usual jaw-dropping display of human strength, speed and agility, but the moment that many of us will most remember showcased a quality of spirit that embodies the best in ourselves, and the best we can offer each other.
The story is by now well-known: How American runner Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin got tangled and tumbled to the track in the 5,000-meter semifinal on Tuesday. How Hamblin lay motionless for a long second, how D’Agostino bent to help her up, and said what mattered: Come on. We have to finish.
How both women — strangers until that moment — gathered themselves and resumed the run, though D’Agostino quickly crumpled in pain.
How Hamblin, uninjured, nonetheless stayed with her.
How both ultimately finished, well off their fastest times but with a kind of inner personal best that transcends any medal.
Media commentators have described the incident as good sportsmanship, but YouTube videos — none of which record the entire race — reveal something richer. In Hamblin’s motionless form, the shock of a shattered dream; in D’Agostino, a fleeting moment of longing as she rises: She glances at the field pulling away from them. She doesn’t yet know how badly she is hurt, and she wants to go. This is her dream, too. Her dream, receding.
D’Agostino is a champion; during her time at Dartmouth, she won seven NCAA titles. She knows what it means to compete at the highest levels.
“I always told her, ‘If you go down, here is what I want you to do,’ ” D’Agostino’s coach, Mark Coogan, told USA Today. “I told her to get up, dust herself off, have a quick look around and then get right back to running.”
D’Agostino did the opposite. She bent over Hamblin, seeing what matters more, what matters most: the touch, the encouragement. And then, back to the race: the rising and falling and, somehow, running. Not alone, but with Hamblin beside her, urging her on — Hamblin, who missed the 2012 London Games because of an Achilles injury, who trained for two tough years to return to racing form and two more to become an Olympian. The two of them, in it together to the finish.
Both women were given places in tonight’s final, though D’Agostino can’t run: her right knee is crippled by a torn meniscus and ACL. Hamblin will toe the start line, but she’s unlikely to finish in the medals; she’s not that good, if you reckon “good” with a stopwatch. Neither was D’Agostino. At their best, they’re not as fast as Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana, or the other African runners likely to occupy the medal stand.
But at their best, they reminded us of a more enduring aspiration and a different kind of gold. Few of us will ever become elite athletes, fewer yet Olympians, and none of us is likely to win an Olympic medal. But what Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin did on Tuesday in Rio is within the reach of each of us: We can finish the race set before us with courage and perseverance. And we can help each other do the same.