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.”

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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.

Coco Gauff eliminated from French Open

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PARIS (AP) — American teenager Coco Gauff’s French Open debut ended in the second round after she double-faulted 19 times in a 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 loss to 159th-ranked qualifier Martina Trevisan.

Gauff double-faulted twice in the last game of the 2-hour, 11-minute match.

The 16-year-old Gauff has reached at least the third round at the other three major tournaments.

For Trevisan, a 26-year-old from Italy, this was her first victory in a Grand Slam match played to its conclusion.

She lost in the first round at the Australian Open this year in her first appearance at a major, then advanced Sunday at Roland Garros when her opponent, Camila Giorgi, stopped playing in the second set because of an injury.

Against Gauff, Trevisan kept yelling, “Yes!” and “Let’s go!” in Italian between points, then let out a high-pitched scream when the match ended.

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Earlier, Defending champion Rafael Nadal reached the third round by beating American player Mackenzie McDonald 6-1, 6-0, 6-3.

The No. 2-seeded Spaniard is looking to win his record-extending 13th French Open title and equal Roger Federer’s men’s record of 20 major titles overall.

Nadal improved his record at Roland Garros to 95-2 when he sealed victory on his first match point. He next faces 74th-ranked Stefano Travaglia of Italy.

Sebastian Korda has now beaten two tour veterans in his first French Open.

After eliminating Andreas Seppi in his opening main draw match, the 20-year-old American qualifier took out 21st-seeded John Isner in the second round with a 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 win.

A former junior world No. 1 and winner of the boys title at the 2018 Australian Open — and the son of 1992 French Open finalist Petr Korda — Korda broke Isner’s normally dominant serve five times.

The No. 213-ranked Korda will next face either Mikhail Kukushkin or qualifier Pedro Martinez on Friday.

Also, No. 27-seeded American Taylor Fritz reached the third round by serving 16 aces in a straight-set victory over Radu Albot.

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Final postponed

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The Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international figure skating competition, will not take place as scheduled in December in Beijing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The International Skating Union announced Wednesday that the Final was postponed.

There were “a number of logistical points raised by potentially participating teams that meant that hosting the competitions on the scheduled dates (close to the end of year holidays and national championships) would have impacted on the number of participants, given the potential need to quarantine on returning to their home country,” according to the ISU.

The ISU is “evaluating the continuation” of the upcoming season and possible rescheduling of the competition in China, which doubles as a 2022 Beijing Olympic test event.

The Grand Prix Final, held every December after the six-event Grand Prix Series, is the biggest indicator of Olympic and world championships medal prospects.

The Grand Prix Series is still scheduled to start with Skate America in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

Fields have not been announced, but skaters are restricted to compete at the event in their home nation or in or near their training location.

The ISU also announced that the remaining World Cup short track speed skating stops in 2020 were postponed or canceled — Seoul and Beijing, both in December.

Previously, the first short track World Cups in November were canceled. All four of the long-track speed skating World Cups scheduled this fall were also canceled.

The next scheduled World Cup short- or long-track events are in February.

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