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Olympian Shares Personal Lessons of Grit and Grace

Olympic runner Abbey D’Agostino Cooper visited Westminster Sept. 17 to share her story of rising beyond adversity to exhibit the best in sportsmanship. She gave a presentation to students and faculty in Werner Centennial Center as part of Westminster’s yearlong celebration of 50 years of coeducation.
 
Cooper is a longtime close friend of faculty member Arianna Vailas, who introduced Cooper to the audience. They were teammates at Dartmouth College.
 
Cooper began her talk by showing a video of herself competing during a semifinal heat of the women’s 5000-meter run in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, when both she and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin fell. Cooper got up, despite sustaining a major injury, and encouraged Hamblin to finish. Cooper also finished the race with Hamblin’s encouragement but ended up leaving the track in a wheelchair because she had torn her right ACL and could not compete further. The incident made international news.
 
Subsequently, both athletes were recognized for their sportsmanship and were awarded the Rio 2016 Fair Play Award by the International Fair Play Committee, and Cooper also received the Jack Kelly Fair Play Award from the U.S. Olympic Committee. 
 
Throughout her career, Cooper has faced injuries, but they have not eclipsed her spirit. And this year, during the 5,000-meter finals at the Olympic Track & Field Team Trials finals in June, she came in fourth place, narrowly missing a berth in the Tokyo Olympics.
 
A graduate of Dartmouth in 2014, where she majored in psychology and competed as a runner, Cooper finished her collegiate career as seven-time national champion, 16-time Ivy League champion and 12-time All-American. In 2012, she became the first Dartmouth woman to win a national title, and in 2013 she became the first Ivy League student-athlete to win the cross-country title.
 
Cooper spoke about how grit and grace have defined her running career, saying she views grace as unmerited favor in having something you don’t deserve, and grit as making the choice to be vulnerable and opening yourself to risk. She said about the video, “That was where I began to learn grit and grace.”
 
She also spoke about how sustaining serious injuries during her career has caused uncertainty and fear, and how competing in the U.S. at Olympic trials can be more nerve-wracking than at the games themselves. “Grit wasn’t easy to muster,” she said. “I had to remind myself that I had been here before.”
 
She shared that she has sought inspiration in her career through others and her religious beliefs. “True grit is accepting the ultimate lack of control when things happen,” she explained.
 
During a question-and-answer session that followed her talk, she said that injuries are very hard for athletes to face. “Going through something hard makes you better on the other side,” she said, as she encouraged everyone to “make that choice to lean in” during hardships, saying to yourself, “Something good is coming as I lean in.”
 
When asked about what is next for her, she said she continues to train and is hoping to compete in the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. Before that, she is looking forward to competing in the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Ore.
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