Olympic spirit still shining bright for Rio’s 5,000m stars

One of the defining moments of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games did not involve medals or records or even an extraordinary performance. Instead it was about simple care, friendship and courage.

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Twelve months on from a women’s 5,000m heat that captured the world’s attention, athletes Nikki Hamblin (New Zealand) and Abbey D’Agostino (USA) talk about an act that has bound them together forever.

“It still seems like such a small thing to do, and it feels like anyone would have done the same,” said Hamblin of the moments, replayed on the internet millions of times, which followed her and D’Agostino’s tumble to the track.

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In case you missed it, the pair were around 4,000m into their heat one year ago when the New Zealander Hamblin stumbled and fell, inadvertently taking D’Agostino down with her. The US athlete rose first, and immediately leant down to implore the stricken Hamblin to rise up and finish the race. Only then did D’Agostino realise she had suffered a severe injury and collapsed back to the ground. The roles reversed, Hamblin repeatedly encouraged her rival to get to her feet. Remarkably, both completed the race, D’Agostino with a severe ACL tear, winning the world’s hearts along the way.

Despite still being in the recovery stage – an attempted comeback in March this year resulted in a hamstring strain and the discovery of further mechanical issues related to the Rio injury - D’Agostino is positively glowing from the experience.

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“The powerful aftermath and all the positive reaction that came are really empowering and motivating, knowing that I was able to be a part of a really meaningful moment,” she said.

The pair were subsequently presented with the IOC Fair Play Award; but more importantly, they know that they galvanised the long-cherished spirit of the Olympic Games.

“It has opened so many doors to provide more of a platform for me and a voice off the track. That has totally empowered my recovery, even in the dark and dull moments,” D’Agostino said.

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The pair are still much in demand by schools, companies and others keen to hear their story and share the lessons learned.

“There have been some different audiences, from Christian camps to corporations that I don’t share a lot in common with, but what happened was such a human thing, so it can really speak to a wide variety of people,” D’Agostino said, before adding, “I love doing it.”

Hamblin shares this passion and the opportunity to spread a slightly nuanced view of competitive sport.

“You go and talk to some kids and they want to win medals, and that is awesome; but giving them a little view of the other side, that you don’t always have to win a medal, it doesn’t define you,” said the 29-year-old. “What you do and how you behave define you.”

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In a wonderfully uplifting quirk, Hamblin’s family found out about Nikki’s deeply human act the same way most did, via the television. The twice 2010 Commonwealth Games silver medallist (800m and 1500m) only ran the 5,000m at the last minute, persuaded by her coach to “get out there and give it a go” after the deep disappointment of dropping out of her favoured 1500m in the first round.

“My sister turned on the TV in London and was like ‘err, I think that’s Nikki’,” laughed Hamblin.

“What is really great is that they don’t see me as a runner, they see me as a person. My aunty, who is my closest family in New Zealand, was like ‘well, that’s just Nikki’.”

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There is no doubt that it was this simplicity, two people looking out for each other, which captured the imagination.

“Unity despite difference is the essence of the Olympics, so to be able to demonstrate that was amazing,” D’Agostino said.

The 25-year-old, one of the USA’s most decorated collegiate athletes of all time, is totally at ease with the idea that, no matter what she does in sport or beyond, she will always be known to many for what she did in a race in which she hobbled home minutes behind the winner.

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“It is so funny, I have had some conversations with people about that and I just smile,” said D’Agostino. “The ability to have this platform to talk about character and kindness and what really matters is just a huge blessing.” In slight contrast, the competitor in Hamblin still has the occasional struggle with what went on in Rio last summer.

“There is still a little bit of sadness around the whole thing,” said the New Zealander. “No one wants to be on the ground in the Olympic Games; but the further I get away from it the more I appreciate what everyone else saw in that moment.

This creeping perspective has had significant consequences for Hamblin.

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“Enjoying the journey is a massive thing that Rio gave me. Sometimes you get to that pinnacle event that you have been thinking about for four years and it is not going to go the way you want, but does that mean you are a failure? The answer is no,” she said.

Both Hamblin and D’Agostino have their sights set on the Tokyo 2020 Games. The idea of seeing each other there is deeply inspiring. The pair, who regularly text and email, last saw each other in-person at the 2017 Laureus World Sport Awards in Monaco, in February.

“It was awesome to meet away from the track. We went together, we were in dresses, we didn’t really talk about running,” Hamblin said with a smile, before D’Agostino jumped in.

“It is definitely going to be a lifelong connection. We have both been so blown away by the past year and all it has brought to us.”