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Abbey (D’Agostino) Cooper left the track at the 2016 Olympics in a wheelchair. After she tangled legs with Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand, Cooper crashed to the ground, hobbled to the finish, and later found out she had severely damaged her ACL.
What was ahead for the promising young athlete, who’s now 27, was a mixed bag. She left the Rio Games hailed a hero for her sports(wo)manship, but her running career was in jeopardy.
Finally, three years later, Cooper is back on a big starting line, ready to compete again in the 5,000 meters at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships, which begin on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. The top three finishers will make the world championships team, competing in September in Doha.
Cooper comes in with a 15:21.87 world standard qualifier, which she achieved in June in her first 5K since 2016. It is currently the 14th-fastest time in the field of 25 women who have declared their entries for the race on Sunday.
Since Rio, the seven-time NCAA champion who ran for Dartmouth College has gotten married and uprooted her New England roots to Asheville, North Carolina. And after eight years under the direction of Mark Coogan, former Dartmouth coach and current coach of New Balance Boston, she is working with Chris Layne, who has also been her agent since graduating in 2014.
Women’s Running spoke with Cooper by phone on Friday to catch up on her health, transitions, and thoughts as she prepares for the USATF outdoor championships.
Women’s Running: Heading into the outdoor championships, I know you had a little bit of what your coach described as “a niggle.” How are you feeling?
Abbey Cooper: Overall, things have been—comparatively speaking—pretty smooth in the past year. I just had somebody ask me the other day, “When’s the last time you strung together nine to 12 months of fairly consistent training?” By that I mean not taking more than a week or two off to nurse something here and there. The answer to that questions is: years. Really since college—even before 2016 I had things popping up about every six months. I’m really thankful for that.
With the U.S. champs coming up [this] week, it’s crazy to me that it’s been three years since I’ve competed at them. Even in light of this issue which has popped up—I thought it was my Achilles but after speaking with the legend that everyone knows as [Phoenix-based chiropractor] John Ball, it’s not that tendon itself, so that de-escalated the problem quite a bit.
I’ve just tried to cultivate more of an expectation that as I start to integrate more speed and intensity than I have in three years, I almost have a low-grade PTSD where I’ve just like blown through pain, to my demise. I’m just kind of on red alert all the time and navigating that line. That’s all to say that I’m going to be fine to get to the start line and I’m just trying to protect my head space for the next [six] days.
WR: Has the psychological end of your training been challenging?
AC: That’s been one of the unexpected challenges of the past few months as I get back into more regular racing. It’s like, yes, I’ve done this hundreds of times before, but you know my identity as an athlete has changed quite a bit in the past few years. I’m trying to remember what’s already there, but add to it. That’s humbled me a little bit. I still get nervous for every race, but I’m trying to learn better strategies to manage those even at 27 years old. It’s fun and hard to do that.
WR: You just said your identity as an athlete has changed. How?
AC: I don’t know if I have a super well-developed answer yet. Holistically, as a human, I’ve matured. There have been so many life changes in the past three years as well, so that spills over to who I am as an athlete. I’ve just really had to release the reins. As many distance runners are, I’m naturally Type A, naturally stubborn about what I believe it takes to be successful and it’s taken so long for me to really let go of the rigidity there.
This past year has been an enormous leap of faith—my training has changed so drastically. I’ve just been so blown away because all my expectations have been overturned about what it takes to just be out there and be consistent. It’s about adding layers instead of volume. The way you achieve that aerobic volume can be different than what I thought for years.
WR: In the past year, basically, you got married, moved from Boston to Asheville, North Carolina, and changed coaches after eight years. That’s a lot.
AC: Yes. My goodness. Overall, it’s been so awesome because I’ve learned things that I didn’t even know I needed to learn. But it was a lot at once—it was very overwhelming. As I look back, the fact that it all happened in a matter of a few months was actually a big blessing in disguise, because it forced me to just take a leap.
The decision to work with [coach and agent] Chris Layne—once that opportunity arose, there was quite a bit of thought and discussion that went into it. But before that seed was planted it wasn’t even an option I was thinking about. Instead of talking to a million people, which is helpful sometimes but in that situation I think it would have made things worse. I had known him for four years.
In life, really, it’s only when things get that overwhelming that I’m forced out of my comfort zone into something that is really good. I was forced to be dependent on God in a way that I really hadn’t before—and make decisions like I wouldn’t if I had more control.
If you had asked me before all this what I foresaw, it would have been completely different, but the older I get the more I realize that’s the way things need to be in order to be open to new opportunities.
WR: Let’s get into the training. How is Chris’s philosophy been different than Mark Coogan’s?
AC: As you know well, I had been working with Mark for eight years and had more success than I ever would have imagined under him. But since I became a professional, it’s hard still to tell exactly why my body was not able to maintain that level of volume anymore. It just wasn’t. I was pretty inarguably underweight in college so now my body has reached a homeostasis, perhaps I wasn’t exactly designed to handle that much mileage. I don’t really know.
I don’t firmly believe I’ll never be able to run 70 miles per week again, but at least right now coming off the ACL injury, I need to restore more symmetry before I can handle that. The model with Chris is a lot more holistically focused. The training is largely Jack Daniels designed, with the different pace zones of marathon, threshold, interval, rep. It’s more quality focused and a real focus on the ancillary things, like doing drills several times a week and sprinting more. I do a lot of med-ball throws. The primary concern for me was that even two years out from ACL surgery, I still had a 12 percent difference on several factors—the way my foot hit the ground and how long it was on the ground. It’s crazy that even in a linear sport how much impact that’s had. The strength-training piece has been a huge antidote to that problem, doing a lot of bilateral and single-leg work twice a week.
I’ve also done a lot of trail running to help with that neuromuscular part, my brain being wired to protect my right side.
WR: Those are a lot of changes.
AC: I was certainly resistant at first. I mean, Coach knows that. I really wanted to discuss it all the time at first, but as soon as I know the “why,” I’m in. He’s been patient with that. It’s finally starting to gel and I’m getting in the rhythm of it now, a year later.
WR: I would imagine now that you’re seeing that consistency, you also have more confidence in the system?
AC: Absolutely. Right. I had a few niggles here and there that kept me from having a full indoor season this year or even starting the outdoor season earlier, but the plan has always been to focus on outdoor. I knew there’d be a point at which I could realistically assess the relationship between my training and racing. I wasn’t able to do that until this season. I was finally like, “Okay, here’s where my workout fitness translates to a race time.”
WR: As you pointed out, it’s the first time in three years that you’ve been able to compete at the U.S. championships. Rio might be the last time some casual fans have seen you racing. How have you been able to stick to the belief that you can get back to that level?
AC: That’s the question I come back to every time I’m in the pool [cross-training] again and in the hardest moments of our sport. It comes back to a calling.
I resonated so deeply with Meb’s [Keflezighi] book. I had no idea the extent to which he was injured in his career. He said he just kept coming back to this potential he knew was reserved within him that hadn’t been unleashed.
Running professionally has felt like a calling since I was graduating from college. Truly even the day after everything happened in Rio, I just really knew. From what I know of God, it’s what he does. It’s never what we expect and it’s always better. That has been my journey for the past five years. It has not gone the way that I would have drawn it out and that’s true for some many people. But learning to remain steadfast in the face of uncertainty and fear and discomfort—that is it in life.
I’m so young and thankful that I have a lot of years ahead to do this. I know that this is my assignment right now, to do this when it sucks and remember it’s not about me and my accomplishments. I’m learning about God and can share the realities of the struggle and inspire courage through it. Whatever it amounts to, there’s more potential in me.
WR: You are still young in the sport with a lot of years ahead if you choose. You’ve already had so many obstacles.
AC: I want to be totally transparent. There are times when I’m like, “Okay, I’ve paid my dues. That’s it.” I feel like that in frustration, but I know that’s not how it works. I’m only 27. It’s so cool to see other female athletes peaking later and later with so many other life responsibilities. That inspires me because I have those other life aspirations as well—my husband and I for sure have those plans.
WR: There are so many examples of women competing well and also having children.
AC: Right. Or have nonprofits or whatever the case is. And I imagine they had similar fears in their twenties, about continuing to be successful while managing those other things. It’s so cool to see those fears disappear. It’s not that it’s not hard, but it’s possible.
WR: What will be a satisfying outcome for you in the 5,000 meters at the USATF outdoor championships?
AC: There’s more work to do on my end about where I realistically stand. I’m not naïve to the fact that I haven’t sharpened up race-wise with a 1500 like I was supposed to. I know that we’ve been doing speed and I trust my strength. There have been a lot of times I’ve been able to surprise myself, just get in the moment and have an experience of kicking in a way I didn’t think was possible. Where do I draw my confidence in terms of speed? Top eight initially comes to mind. I’m going to do everything I can obviously to give myself an opportunity to be in that top three, but I want to cross the finish line knowing that I made the decision to fight when inevitably it got hard.