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The last time the crowd was behind Abbey Cooper (then D’Agostino) she was limping across the finish line in the semi-final round of the 5,000 meters at the Rio Olympics. Her legs had tangled with another runner’s, she fell to the track twice, but still managed to complete the race on a torn ACL. They were applauding her spirit and perseverance, but not the performance she had prepared for.
Five years after she left that Rio track in a wheelchair, on the first day of the 2021 Olympic Track & Field Trials—just when fans yearned for something to finally cheer about—Cooper took an otherwise mundane 5,000 meter semi-final and went for the Olympic qualifying standard. It’s a time she didn’t have (15:10), but is a requirement to make Team USA if she finishes in the top three in the final on Monday.
Going for the time wasn’t a premeditated race strategy. About 45 minutes before the race took off at Hayward Field, in Eugene, Oregon, Cooper said her coach, Chris Layne, mentioned that the temperatures are forecasted to climb into the 90s on Monday. If she wanted to go for the Olympic standard, Friday was her better shot.
As the field mostly dallied, Cooper, 29, went on a solo mission after three laps. Soon the spectators realized her goal, and the encouragement grew stronger. At the bell, she needed to finish that final lap in no more than 70 seconds. Her closest competitor, Rachel Schneider, was 14 seconds behind—Schneider already has achieved the Olympic qualifying time (her PR is 14:52.04) and merely needed to advance to the final by way of placing in the top six of the race on Friday.
About 68 seconds later, Cooper arrived in 15:07.80, her fastest race since 2015, when she set her personal best of 15:03.85. Since the last Olympics, she’s had knee reconstruction, followed by several injuries in her foot, achilles, and hamstring. Getting the crucial consistency in training that leads to national teams and qualifying times has been a struggle for the seven-time NCAA champion from Dartmouth, who now lives in Boone, North Carolina.
“The past five years have been so much harder than I ever could have imagined. Thank God I didn’t know how hard it was going to be,” Cooper said after the race. “I have kept going because this is a calling for me. I love this sport, but the joy of it is robbed sometimes when you’re just in a cyclical pattern of injury…I feel so overwhelmed. I’m so thankful.”
It was a triumphant return for Cooper, but also for the athletes and fans who’ve weathered a pandemic, a year of delay and uncertainty. Day one of the 2021 Olympic Trials didn’t disappoint.
Although achieving that Olympic standard was an important step, Cooper faces a formidable field on Monday (the final of the 5,000 meters is at 5:40 p.m. Pacific). All the contenders advanced on Friday, including Karissa Schweizer, Elise Cranny, Vanessa Fraser, Josette Norris, and Schneider—all with PRs under 15 minutes.
“It’s gonna be legs up, ice baths, and really taking it easy,” Cooper said. “I don’t feel wiped. I’m tired, but I’m still within myself so I’m confident going into Monday.”