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Dealing with Disappointment: How the Top Runners Handle Heartbreak

Runners set big goals and often those dreams don’t come true. It happens to everybody—even Olympians and Olympic hopefuls.

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A false start here. A fall there. A nip at the finish line. A sub-par performance on the wrong day. An ill-timed injury. The heartbreak at the Olympics is palpable. And unavoidable. And on some level it’s even relatable. We all have dreams—and we all have them dashed sometimes. Maybe not on national television, but the pain is still very real.

Ajee’ Wilson, who is the American record holder in the 800 meters, knows it well. She described a less-than-ideal buildup this season but had hoped to rebound in time to perform her best at the Tokyo Olympics. Unfortunately she didn’t advance to the final round, taking fourth place in her semifinal after fighting for a top three position, then fading in the homestretch. It was a gut-punch for a medal contender.

“The hard work we put in doesn’t always yield the results we want,” Wilson wrote on Instagram. “And when that happens—pshhh, it hurts y’all!”

But before the Games even begin, runners have to qualify. For most American track and field athletes, there’s probably no bigger disappointment than placing fourth at the U.S. Olympic Trials. It’s a heartbeat away from what’s considered the pinnacle achievement of the sport: becoming an Olympian.

RELATED: We Can Learn a Lot From the Women Who Didn’t Make the Olympic Team

Abbey Cooper has experienced both sides. In 2016 she made Team USA to compete in the 5,000 meters at the Rio Games. In 2021? She had a superb semifinal, winning her 5,000-meter heat and clocking 15:07.80 to also gain the Olympic standard. When she lined up for the final three days later, she remained in contention for the top three until almost the very end. She just missed, coming in fourth behind Elise Cranny, Karissa Schweizer, and Rachel Schneider.

Cooper had spent five years since the Rio Olympics trying to come back from ACL surgery and all the resulting complications from a nasty fall she took during the competition at the 2016 Games. Up until her buildup for the 2021 Trials, she hadn’t experienced a healthy stretch of training, nor had she gotten much confidence from her limited racing. To find herself that close, in contention again for a place on the Tokyo-bound team was bittersweet.

“It’s easy to go back in my mind and try to think about what I could have done differently and maybe there are some small tactical errors that I made,” Cooper says. “But at the same time, I got beat. Those women are incredible. Sometimes we can build this narrative that allows us to have more control, but the reality is, I did my best and I didn’t finish in the top three.”

After Cooper got over the initial shock at the finish line, she still was required to go to Team USA processing as the alternate—she’d be called to compete if one of the top three women could not race in Tokyo. Processing is where Team USA members get fitted for Olympic uniforms and apparel, book tickets to Tokyo, and receive lots of information about the rules and regulations while they’re representing the country at the Games. It’s an exciting time for athletes, often having that exhilarating moment where it all sinks in. Going through it as an alternate, though, is tough.

RELATED: Fans React to Abbey Cooper’s Gutsy 5,000 Meter Final: “She is the Definition of a Competitor”

“It’s a very humbling experience, in a word. I almost tried to have a sense of humor about it because you’re so vulnerable, especially at the Trials. You literally put your heart on the line and it feels like a gut-punch,” Cooper says. “My husband dropped me off and said it was an opportunity to just be genuinely joyful, because for those women it is one of the best days of their lives. It helped to just think about what it was like in 2016 to be in that position of having made the team.”

While most of us won’t ever have so much riding on a single race, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have our hearts broken by the sport we love. Devoting hours of our lives to training for big races, while setting big goals, means we’re invested not just physically, but emotionally, to the outcome. When it doesn’t go our way, it is disappointing. No matter if you’re going for the local 5K win or a gold medal in Tokyo, we all have experiences that teach us to weather the ups and downs of performance. Learn some tips and tricks for dealing with disappointment from a few of the women who competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials, but came up short.

You don’t have to know what you feel.

Cooper’s husband, Jacob Cooper, is a sports psychologist, so the support she receives is not only in the form of love, but also sometimes professional help. In the aftermath of the Trials, Cooper says her husband was “servant hearted.” His first piece of advice was to take time to process.

“On the way home I was having a lot of emotions all at once,” Cooper says. “He’s really helpful in moments like this. I said, ‘I don’t know what I feel yet.’ And he said, ‘Placing fourth at the Olympic Trials is a complex situation and you have to allow yourself a complex response.’”

That piece of advice took the pressure off of Cooper to figure it out. She was allowed to just remain ambivalent if it helped to cope. 

RELATED: The Psychology of “Rebounding”: How to Come Back Mentally and Physically Stronger From Any Setback

“I was disappointed, but also at the same time just overwhelmed and blown away just to be in contention again,” Cooper says. “As time has passed, I feel a lot more peace.”

Since the Trials, Cooper has started training and racing again, too. She knew she could still capitalize on her health and fitness, even if that didn’t happen in Tokyo. She raced a 5,000 meters on July 25 and came away with a personal best of 14:56.58 and she plans on continuing to compete throughout the rest of the season.

“I haven’t had a healthy summer of racing in my entire professional career,” she says. “I want to just ride that wave of gratitude and this is ideally when you’re most fit anyway.”

Seek out people who will help you sort out your next steps.

For Chanelle Price, the Trials marked a lot of different milestones. Like Cooper, she’s endured many health problems and injuries over the past few years: fractures in her foot, a pulmonary embolism that caused blood clots in her lungs, and a recurrence of mononucleosis. Her career could have ended a number of times, but she wanted to give it at least one more go in 2020…which turned into 2021.

Price competed in the 800 meters and finished in fifth place, setting a personal best (1:58.73) in the process. Just coming that close, running the fastest she ever has, was a victory, even if she didn’t make the Tokyo Olympics. In fact, the day of the final at the Trials, she was overcome with emotion just to get that far and have a shot.

“I was crying most of the day because, wow, I actually did it and I was giving myself a chance to make the team,” Price says. “I was just an emotional wreck that day. My mentor, Hazel Clark, was crying. My mom was crying.”

RELATED: Chanelle Price: “I Am Tougher Because of What I Went Through”

Price, who is the 2015 world indoor champion in the 800 meters, led the first 400 meters of the race, but in a blistering final 200 meters it was Athing Mu, Raevyn Rogers, and Wilson who took the top three spots. Price had done all she could do, though, and she knew it.

“I walked off the track smiling because I knew that I ran my race. There’s nothing that I would do differently,” she says. “The disappointment didn’t last long because at the end of the day it was all I could ask of myself.”

In the days afterward, however, Price felt drained. Her agent had lined up races for her in Europe and after one day of binge watching Netflix and staying in bed, she was off to compete and pace other athletes in Monaco. Although she enjoyed the adventure, helping others reach their goals, and change of scenery, in the end she came home to Eugene, Oregon, and told her Oregon Track Club Elite coach, Mark Rowland, that she needed to shut it down and visit her family in Easton, Pennsylvania. 

The physical fatigue was real—and another reality was also setting in. What to do with the rest of her career? Although she’s been training with the OTC and receives team support for healthcare, housing, and travel, she hasn’t had a contract with Nike since 2018. Financially she can’t continue as a pro runner without the stable income that a sponsorship would provide, she says. Her race result at the Trials wasn’t a disappointment, but it also didn’t help her chances of finding a contract that will allow her to keep running.

“I don’t think a lot of runners talk about this enough,” Price says. “I’m 31, but I feel 25. I’m at an age now where I need to start thinking about steady income and my future—it really sucks because I’m also starting to run my best.”

RELATED: Kate Grace Talks Age, Racing, and Bouncing Back After Olympic Trials

Although Price plans to continue to race the second half of the season, taking time to mull over her options and have down time with her family and boyfriend have helped her come up with a few ideas about what she might want to pursue. While training for the Trials she didn’t have the mental space to think about her interests—maybe sport psychology or advising NCAA student athletes. Or, if a company is willing to take a chance on her, she’d love to take one more shot at the 2022 world championships, which are going to be held in Eugene, Oregon.

Whatever happens, Price recommends finding the people who know you best to walk through it with you.

“I’m not going through this transition, if that’s what you want to call it, alone,” she says. “A lot of athletes don’t talk about how hard it is to walk away from something that you’ve been doing for decades. It’s a very, very hard decision.”

Just keep going.

During the early season of 2021, Josette Norris had an unexpected rise to the top of 5,000-meter Olympic team contenders. She had consistently improved her time down to 14:51.42 by the time the Trials rolled around.

Then the final came and she finished in eighth—not where she or others predicted she’d be. In retrospect, Norris says she was thinking too much about the end goal and not executing the strategies that got her there in the first place.

“I think focusing too much on placing in the top three took away from my strengths as a runner this season, which was really excelling at being calm and relaxed,” Norris says. “I thought I could win the race and by the time the move got made I was mentally and physically exhausted.”

RELATED: How to Chill Out, According to Olympic Hopeful Josette Norris

Immediately afterward, her friends, family, and especially her fiancé, Robbie Andrews, also a pro runner, reminded her that she had come a long way in a short amount of time. Her season was also not over and besides, they all love her no matter how fast or slow she runs.

“They told me that one race doesn’t define my season or my worth,” she says. “Robbie said that I’m more than just this moment and it’s not a bad start at my first Olympic Trials. Six months ago I wasn’t even qualified for the Trials.”

For Norris the best way to cope was to just keep running. She took a week to go easy and process what had happened and then came up with new goals. She poured herself into her workouts and her coach, Chris Fox, told her she was probably in better shape than she was even at the Trials. 

“I knew that there were still a lot of really cool things I could do this season and could use this fitness to my advantage,” Norris says. 

In mid-July she lined up for the Sunset Tour 1500 meters and broke another barrier, sub-four, winning the race in 3:59.72, a time that qualifies her to take a shot at the 2022 world championships team. A week later, she won the 5,000 meters at the tour’s next competition in a new personal best of 14:51.32.

She was hoping that her new times might open some other doors, like a spot on the starting line at the prestigious Prefontaine Classic in August, the only Diamond League meet in the U.S. (it requires a return trip to Hayward Field). Although the start list hasn’t been officially announced, it seems likely she’ll race the 1500 meters there, allowing her to gain more experience racing a tough international field.

The takeaways? Norris has a few. She recommends finding the tangible changes you can make to perform better. Get the feelings out first, either by talking to somebody who can help or by writing it all down. Anything to keep the negativity from lingering in your head forever.

RELATED: Feeling Down? Here’s How to Know if Running Will Help or Hurt

“Then I shifted my focus to my workouts and making sure I had races to look forward to,” Norris says. “It’s really important to have something on the schedule to train for, even if it’s a time trial. Your running will continue to feel purposeful.”

Go ahead and switch gears.

Grayson Murphy went back to the track to compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Olympic Trials and performed above expectations in the semifinal, winning her heat and finishing in an Olympic standard time of 9:25.37.

Although she arrived at the Trials with humble goals, she was suddenly filled with hope. After switching to mountain running and trail running, where she’s won national titles and is a world mountain running champion, Murphy was a little intimidated to return to the track. But it seemed like it was going just fine.

In the final she ended up taking sixth place after two years away from consistent competition around the oval. Although she thought it was special to win that first heat at Hayward Field, she couldn’t help but think she had come up short in the final.

“After I won the first race, I thought, ‘Oh my god, I think that it is within in the realm of possibility,’” Murphy says. “But I was feeling kind of flat in the final. I was really grateful to be there, but it sucks because even if you only have the dream of making the team for a couple of days, when you don’t live that out, it’s still emotional. It took me a couple of days to work through it.”

Her motivation to get to the Trials? The people who said that Murphy had turned to mountain running and trail running because she didn’t have enough talent to compete on the track or roads. Maybe not the best inspiration, but she also just wanted to see how fast she could run.

“I probably was disappointed for two or three days after, but I just took a break from training and gave myself some space from the structure,” Murphy says. “Then I got back to the trails. I like doing different disciplines because I tend to get bored easily with things.”

She entered the Cirque Series race in Alta, Utah, shortly after the Trials and won. It was a good confidence builder on her way to racing the U.S. Mountain Running Championships on August 15. Finding peace on the dirt has helped her move on.

“I don’t believe in failure,” Murphy says. “I think that if you learn something, even if you learn what not to do, it is a success in some way. I consider getting through the rounds and managing my emotions a success. It makes it easier for me to move forward and be happy.”

RELATED: It’s Not All Bad, It’s Not All Good: The Art of Balancing Conflicting Emotions