Going the Extra 5K: An Olympic Holy Encounter

by Greg Mackie

As we leave behind the recently completed Olympics in Rio, I’m reflecting on a question that Course students have asked me often over the years: Is competitive athletics compatible with A Course in Miracles? Obviously, like so many endeavors in human life, this one is fraught with the quest for specialness. These are events in which people literally compete to see who has the best body; the official Olympic motto, after all, is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” That being said, the Holy Spirit can use any situation to teach His lesson of love and joining. With that in mind, I’d like to tell you about the Olympic holy encounter between Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin.

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D’Agostino of the United States and Hamblin of New Zealand were competing in the semifinals of the 5,000-meter run in Rio. Unfortunately, four laps from the finish, disaster struck: the two tripped over each other, with Hamblin tumbling face forward onto the track and D’Agostino falling right behind her. Hamblin lay prostrate on the track while D’Agostino managed to get up. The American could have simply continued on with her race. Falls are frequent in international track distance races, and getting up and moving on as quickly as you can is the norm. After all, this is a competition.

But something different happened this time. Seeing Hamblin lying there in the track, D’Agostino put a hand on her shoulder and said, as Hamblin relates it, “Get up, get up, we have to finish this!” D’Agostino pulled Hamblin to her feet, and the two continued on. But as they did, it quickly became clear that D’Agostino had been hurt in the fall. She was faltering badly, and within seconds she collapsed to the track on all fours, in agony. Now Hamblin took the opportunity to return the favor. Instead of running on, she went back to where D’Agostino was lying and reached for her with two open arms. The New Zealander helped the American up, and the two of them gamely finished the race-Hamblin running ahead, looking back to check on D’Agostino’s progress, D’Agostino waving her on. Of course, they finished in the last two places, far behind the field. Afterward, they shared a tearful embrace at the finish line.

And thus, the phenomenon started. The whole world was inspired by their display of sportsmanship and sisterhood. Their story went viral, and these two also-rans (at least in this particular race) became instant celebrities. The next day, by D’Agostino’s estimate, they did ten to twelve media interviews in five hours. They were on everything from NBC News to Access Hollywood to Snapchat. They had become international stars overnight. And as the days passed, more accolades accumulated. A petition was started to have D’Agostino be the US flag bearer at the Closing Ceremonies (which didn’t happen, in part because she went home with her family). On the final day of the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee gave both of them the Pierre de Coubertin Award for fair play and sportsmanship, which has been awarded only 17 times in the 120-year history of the modern Olympics.

And when you see the event and hear what the two women have to say about what happened, you can understand what all the hoopla is about. This expression of love on an international stage has clearly impacted them both deeply, and with them the whole world. Hamblin marvels at the moment that D’Agostino reached out and helped her (I’ve culled the following quotations from multiple reports):

And suddenly there’s this hand on my shoulder, like “get up, get up, we have to finish this!” I’m so grateful for Abbey for doing that for me. That girl is the Olympic spirit right there….I’ve never met her before. Isn’t that so amazing?…I was overwhelmed by the kindness [of] Abbey….Abbey stopped. She could have just kept running, but she stopped to make sure that I got back up. I’m just so grateful for that.

D’Agostino, for her part, calls the whole event “this really cool mutual helping,” and is so touched by it that she sees in it the hand of God: “I think that the qualities that people see as heroic and altruistic, those come from God. I’m glad he’s chosen me to be an instrument of that and react that way in that moment.” Moreover, both see the event as a lesson that has put the competition in perspective and brought higher values to the fore. D’Agostino says that “[we’re] seeing the value of relationship and serving and sacrifice, bigger messages,” while Hamblin, speaking of her decision to help D’Agostino in return, says, “Sometimes I guess you have to remember trying to be a good human being is more than, you know….If I hadn’t waited for her or tried to help her I would have been ten or fifteen seconds quicker and what does that matter?”

Indeed, this contrast between the meaninglessness of the athletic competition—the big thing everyone was in Rio to do—and the deep meaning of this brief, loving encounter is what jumps out most for me. From an athletic standpoint, things didn’t turn out well at all. Both runners were advanced to the 5,000-meter final by the judges (as is common in distance events when accidental falls happen), but they had little to show for it. Hamblin had a sore ankle and hobbled to a last-place finish. D’Agostino wasn’t able to run at all; she was on crutches with an injury that will require surgery and six months of recovery. As far as the competition went, these two literally hurt each other and dashed each other’s Olympic dreams.

But they don’t care, because in their eyes, this experience of “really cool mutual helping” was worth more than any paltry medal could ever be. Hamblin says that they have no negative feelings whatsoever about the results, and indeed, “We wouldn’t change going down because of something so much bigger and so much stronger and so much more powerful [that has] come out of what happened, as opposed to a result on a scoreboard.” Through this event, as an article on Yahoo by Pat Forde beautifully puts it,

They lived out one of the core tenets of sport: if you fall down, get back up. And they lived out one of the core tenets of humanity: help those in need. Those giant lessons sprang from an instantaneous decision amid considerable duress and hardship.

And most of all, it seems that the greatest thing they gained from their encounter is an appreciation for what D’Agostino above calls “the value of relationship”—in particular, their newborn relationship. You can see their connection when you watch them in interviews. These two women from opposite ends of the world definitely plan to keep in touch. D’Agostino says, “I think this is the beginning of a relationship that will unfold because of the extremity of what we experienced together.” Hamblin, speaking of that same shared extreme experience, says, “You can make friends in the moments that really should break your heart.” In the end, she sums it up succinctly: “If you have a moment like that with anyone, you’re always joined.”

This is such an inspiring story. It is, I think, a true holy encounter. I’m reminded of the Manual’s statement that a true joining can happen in an event as trivial as one person running into another (see M-3.2:2). Such events, the Course tells us, are divinely arranged, and carry with them the potential for a joining far greater than we might imagine: “Even at the level of the most casual encounter, it is possible for two people to lose sight of separate interests, if only for a moment. That moment will be enough. Salvation has come” (M-3.2:6-8). As I think of these two women who literally met via running into each other and may now have a lifelong friendship, I can’t help but think that something like this happened here.

I’m also reminded of this passage from the Text:

The Bible says that you should go with a brother twice as far as he asks. It certainly does not suggest that you set him back on his journey. Devotion to a brother cannot set you back either. It can lead only to mutual progress. The result of genuine devotion is inspiration, a word which properly understood is the opposite of fatigue. To be fatigued is to be dis-spirited, but to be inspired is to be in the spirit. (T-4.In.1:1-6)

The collision and resulting last-place finish of Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin could be seen as a case of two athletes setting each other back on their journey to Olympic glory. But instead, their devotion to each other transformed the event into a blessed opportunity to make mutual progress to the infinitely more valuable goal of true joining. And this genuine devotion naturally led from the fatigue of striving for meaningless earthly goals to the inspiration of striving for a spiritual goal that really matters-an inspiration that touched them both, and through them, all of us.

And all of this just from two women falling down on a track. Such a mundane moment, indeed a disastrous moment, in worldly terms. But Hamblin says, “I’m never going to forget that moment. When someone asks me what happened in Rio in twenty years’ time, that’s my story…That girl shaking my shoulder, (saying) ‘come on, get up.'” As for me, I won’t forget it either. Thank you, Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin, for inspiring us all to reach out to one another in mutual joining. Come on, let’s all help each other get up!

Selected sources for this story:

http://tinyurl.com/zvlbrcj (Yahoo Pat Forde article)
http://tinyurl.com/zpc7au5 (video of the event)
http://tinyurl.com/j9jqh4d (interview—the sound doesn’t kick in until 13 seconds in)

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