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

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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.”

MORE: Donavan Brazier believes he has chance at legendary record

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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.

Katie Ledecky out-touches new rival at swimming’s U.S. Open, extends streak

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It was a rare sight: Katie Ledecky being matched stroke for stroke in a distance race in an American pool. She was up for the challenge.

Ledecky out-touched emerging 16-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh by eight hundredths of a second in the 400m freestyle at the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C., on Thursday night.

Ledecky and McIntosh were tied at the 300-meter mark. Ledecky ended up clocking 3:59.71 to McIntosh’s 3:59.79 to extend a decade-long win streak in freestyle races of 400 meters or longer in U.S. pools.

“I know we’ll have a lot more races ahead of us,” Ledecky said on Peacock. “We bring the best out of each other.”

The U.S. Open continues Friday with live finals coverage on Peacock at 6 p.m. ET.

U.S. OPEN SWIMMING: Full Results

At the Tokyo Olympics, McIntosh placed fourth in the 400m free at age 14.

She accelerated this year, taking silver behind Ledecky at the world championships and silver behind Tokyo gold medalist Ariarne Titmus of Australia at the Commonwealth Games.

Then in October, McIntosh outdueled Ledecky in a 400m free — also by eight hundredths — in a short-course, 25-meter pool at a FINA World Cup meet in Toronto. Long-course meets like the Olympics and the U.S. Open are held in 50-meter pools.

McIntosh also won world titles in the 200m butterfly and 400m individual medley, becoming the youngest individual world champion since 2011.

A potential showdown among Ledecky, Titmus and McIntosh at the 2024 Paris Games is already being compared to the “Race of the Century,” the 2004 Olympic men’s 200m free where Australian Ian Thorpe edged Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and Michael Phelps.

In other events Thursday, Regan Smith, an Olympic and world medalist in the backstroke and butterfly, won a 200m individual medley in a personal best 2:10.40, a time that would have placed fifth at June’s world championships. She beat 16-year-old Leah Hayes, who took bronze in the event at worlds.

Olympic 400m IM champ Chase Kalisz won the men’s 200m IM in 1:56.52, his best time ever outside of major summer meets. Frenchman Léon Marchand won the world title in 1:55.22 in June, when Kalisz was fourth.

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Eliud Kipchoge, two races shy of his target, to make Boston Marathon debut

Eliud Kipchoge Berlin Marathon
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World record holder Eliud Kipchoge will race the Boston Marathon for the first time on April 17.

Kipchoge, who at September’s Berlin Marathon lowered his world record by 30 seconds to 2:01:09, has won four of the six annual major marathons — Berlin, Tokyo, London and Chicago.

The 38-year-old Kenyan has never raced Boston, the world’s oldest annual marathon dating to 1897, nor New York City but has repeated in recent years a desire to enter both of them.

Typically, he has run the London Marathon in the spring and the Berlin Marathon in the fall.

Kipchoge’s last race in the U.S. was the 2014 Chicago Marathon, his second of 10 consecutive marathon victories from 2014 through 2019.

He can become the first reigning men’s marathon world record holder to finish the Boston Marathon since South Korean Suh Yun-Bok set a world record of 2:25:39 in Boston in 1947, according to the Boston Athletic Association.

In 2024 in Paris, Kipchoge is expected to race the Olympic marathon and bid to become the first person to win three gold medals in that event.

The Boston Marathon field also includes arguably the second- and third-best men in the world right now — Kipchoge’s Kenyan training partners Evans Chebet and Benson Kipruto. Chebet won Boston and New York City this year. Kipruto won Boston last year and Chicago this year.

American Des Linden, who won Boston in 2018, headlines the women’s field.

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