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


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.”

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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.

Mikaela Shiffrin finishes World Cup with one more win, two more records and a revelation


Mikaela Shiffrin finished a season defined by records with two more.

Shiffrin won the World Cup Finals giant slalom on the final day of the campaign, breaking her ties for the most career women’s giant slalom wins and most career podiums across all women’s World Cup races.

Shiffrin earned her record-extending 88th career World Cup victory, prevailing by six hundredths over Thea Louise Stjernesund of Norway combining times from two runs in Andorra on Sunday.


She won her 21st career GS, breaking her tie for the most all-time on the women’s World Cup with Vreni Schneider, a Swiss star of the 1980s and ’90s.

She made her 138th career World Cup podium across all events, breaking her tie for the most all-time on the women’s World Cup with Lindsey Vonn. Shiffrin earned her 138th podium in her 249th start, meaning she has finished in the top three in 55 percent of her World Cup races dating to her debut at age 15 in 2011.

Earlier this season, Shiffrin passed Vonn and then Ingemar Stenmark, a Swede of the 1970s and ’80s, for the most career Alpine skiing World Cup victories. She won 14 times from November through March, her second-best season after her record 17-win campaign of 2018-19.

In those years in between, Shiffrin endured the most difficult times of her life, was supplanted as the world’s top slalom skier and questioned her skiing like never before.

On Saturday afternoon, Shiffrin was asked what made the difference this fall and winter. There were multiple factors. She detailed one important one.

“I had a lot of problems with my memory,” she said in a press conference. “Not this season, so much, but last season and the season before that. I couldn’t remember courses. And when I was kind of going through this, I couldn’t keep mental energy for the second runs.”

Pre-race course inspection and the ability to retain that knowledge for a minute-long run over an hour later is integral to success in ski racing. Shiffrin is so meticulous and methodical in her training, historically prioritizing it over racing in her junior days, that inspection would seem to fit into her all-world preparation.

She didn’t understand how she lost that ability until she began working with a new sports psychologist last summer.

“That was a little bit like less focus on sports psychology and more focus on, like, psychology psychology and a little bit more grief counseling style,” she said. “Explaining what was actually going on in my brain, like chemical changes in the brain because of trauma. Not just grief, but actually the traumatic experience itself of knowing what happened to my dad, seeing him in the hospital, touching him after he was dead. Those are things that you can’t get out of your head. It had an impact. Clearly, it still does.”

Shiffrin had a “weird a-ha moment” after her first course inspection this season in November in Finland.

“I didn’t take that long to inspect, and I remembered the whole course,” she said. “Oh my gosh, I was like coming out of a cloud that I had been in for over two years.”

What followed was a win, of course, and a season that approached Shiffrin’s unrivaled 2018-19. Fourteen wins in 31 World Cup starts, her busiest season ever, and bagging the season titles in the overall, slalom and GS in runaways.

“After last season, I didn’t feel like I could get to a level with my skiing again where it was actually contending for the slalom globe,” she said. “And GS, I actually had a little bit more hope for, but then at the beginning of the season, I kind of counted myself out.

“I feel like my highest level of skiing has been higher than the previous couple of seasons, maybe higher than my whole career. My average level of skiing has been also higher than previous seasons, and my lowest level of skiing has also been higher.”

There are other reasons for the revival of dominance, though Shiffrin was also the world’s best skier last season (Olympics aside). She went out of her way on Saturday afternoon to credit her head coach of seven years, Mike Day, who left the team during the world championships after he was told he would not be retained for next season.

“He is as much a part of the success this entire season as he’s ever been,” said Shiffrin, who parted with Day to bring aboard Karin Harjo, the first woman to be her head coach as a pro.

Shiffrin’s greatest success this season began around the time she watched a a mid-December chairlift interview between retired Liechtenstein skier Tina Weirather and Italian Sofia Goggia, the world’s top downhiller. Goggia spoke about her disdain for mediocrity.

“Ever since then, pretty much every time I put on my skis, I’m like, ‘OK, don’t be mediocre today,’” Shiffrin said in January.

During the highest highs of this season, Shiffrin felt like she did in 2018-19.

“It is mind-boggling to me to be in a position again where I got to feel that kind of momentum through a season because after that [2018-19] season, I was like, this is never going to happen again, and my best days of my career are really behind me, which it was kind of sad to feel that at this point four years ago,” said Shiffrin, who turned 28 years old last week. “This season, if anything, it just proved that, take 17 wins [from 2018-19] aside or the records or all those things, it’s still possible to feel that kind of momentum.”

After one last victory Sunday, Shiffrin sat in the winner’s chair with another crystal globe and took questions from an interviewer. It was her boyfriend, Norwegian Alpine skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde.

“Excited to come back and do it again next year,” she replied to one question.

“Yeah,” he wittily replied. “You will.”

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Mikaela Shiffrin ties Lindsey Vonn record at World Cup Finals


Mikaela Shiffrin tied Lindsey Vonn‘s female record with her 137th career Alpine skiing World Cup podium, taking third place in the slalom at the World Cup Finals in Andorra on Saturday.

Shiffrin, racing for the second time since breaking Ingemar Stenmark‘s career Alpine World Cup wins record last Saturday, finished 86 hundredths behind Olympic champion Petra Vlhova of Slovakia, combining times from two runs.

Shiffrin was fourth after the first run. The top two after the first run stayed in that order after the second run — Vlhova, followed by first-time podium finisher Leona Popovic (the best World Cup finish for a Croatian woman in 16 years).

“Every single race I feel the weight of having to be one of the best in the world no matter what the day is, which is actually quite a privilege, but some days it’s quite heavy,” Shiffrin said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “But today it didn’t feel heavy. It just felt like a really good opportunity.”

Six of the 22 skiers skied out of the second run on soft snow.

In Shiffrin’s previous race at the season-ending Finals, she was 14th in Thursday’s super-G, which is not one of her primary events.

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Shiffrin earned her 137th podium in her 248th start, meaning she has finished in the top three in 55 percent of her World Cup races dating to her debut at age 15 in 2011.

The only men with more Alpine World Cup podiums are the Swede Stenmark (155) and Austrian Marcel Hirscher (138).

Shiffrin’s first chance to break her tie with Vonn comes in Sunday’s giant slalom, the last race of the season, live on Peacock.

Shiffrin, who broke Vonn’s female career wins record of 82 in January, clinched season titles in the overall, GS and slalom before the Finals.

Also Saturday, Swiss Marco Odermatt won the men’s giant slalom by 2.11 seconds — the largest margin of victory in any men’s World Cup race in four years — for his 13th World Cup victory this season, tying the men’s single-season record.

He also reached 2,042 points for the season, breaking Austrian Hermann Maier‘s men’s record of 2,000 points in one season from 1999-2000.

Slovenian Tina Maze holds the overall record of 2,414 points from 2012-13.

“We partied hard on Thursday,” after winning the World Cup Finals super-G, Odermatt said, according to FIS. “Today wasn’t easy because of those damn 2,000 points. I really wanted the podium today. So, another victory, two seconds ahead, I don’t know what to say.”

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