— -- RIO DE JANEIRO -- Having tripped and fallen to the track in the second heat of the women's 5,000 meters, New Zealand's Nikki Hamblin lay there wondering, "What's happening? Why am I on the ground?"
And then she felt a hand on her shoulder. It was that of competitor Abbey D'Agostino from the United States, who had tripped and fallen over Hamblin herself. The two had never met before, but D'Agostino was not going to let Hamblin lie on the ground.
"Get up, get up! We have to finish!" D'Agostino told Hamblin. "This is the Olympic Games! We have to finish this!"
D'Agostino helped Hamblin up. Then Hamblin helped D'Agostino as well. And then the two continued the race, with D'Agostino struggling severely after injuring her knee in the fall. As she ran, Hamlin said she looked back to see how D'Agostino was doing, but the American simply waved her on, telling her to just keep going, just keep running.
Hamblin finished next-to-last in her heat with a time of 16 minutes, 43.61 seconds, more than a minute behind the winning time. D'Agostino finished last with a time of 17:10.02, even further behind the winning time. After D'Agostino crossed the finish line, she and Hamblin shared an intensely emotional hug, with tears welling in their eyes.
Asked what she said to D'Agostino at the end of the race, Hamblin replied: "What could I say to her? She helped me up and she finished the race. I couldn't have big enough words to tell her how amazing she is."
Despite their finish times, both will advance to the final because they were tripped. And more importantly, D'Agostino fully exemplified what the Olympics should be all about. Yes, competing to win gold, silver or bronze is important. But so is competing together. The Olympics are not just about individual medalists but also about gathering people from around the world in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.
"I am so grateful to Abbey for helping me," Hamblin said. "That girl was the Olympic spirit right there. I am so impressed and inspired by that.
"I've never met this girl before. It is just so amazing, regardless of this race and the result. It's something I will never ever forget for the rest of my life. It will be this this girl shaking my shoulder and saying get up. I really hope she's OK."
D'Agostino she did not speak with reporters because she needed to receive treatment for the injury but friend and fellow Dartmouth runner Alexi Pappas said she saw her after the race and thinks she will be all right. Regardless of whether or how D'Agostino runs in the final, her performance Tuesday was worthy of a gold medal.
"She is a selfless person and today she embodied the Olympic spirit,'' Pappas said. "Camaraderie. Gratitude. Perseverance. She didn't stop. She did it with joy, so joyful as she could be.''
It was unclear how D'Agostino's knee was -- she did not come through the mixed zone with reporters because she needed to receive treatment for the injury -- but regardless of whether or how she runs in the final, her performance Tuesday was worthy of a gold medal.
The moment was reminiscent of the men's 400 at the 1992 Olympics, when Great Britain's Derek Redmond tore his hamstring during the race and his father climbed out of the stands to help him to the finish line.
"For a runner to help another runner out like that -- that's beautiful and I hope we can all appreciate the team spirit and the Olympic spirit," Australia's Genevieve Lacaze said. "We're all here and it's meant to be fun, but we all race against each other but in a world spirit. When the crowd can sit back and watch something like that happen. It's fabulous. No words can express what that means. She will for sure always remember that."
As we all should, as much as what Usain Bolt does in his races. The Olympic motto is "Faster, higher, stronger.'' But D'Agostino and Hamblin were an example of more important words. Along with Pappas' description of camaraderie and perseverance, add: "Caring. Supportive. Human.''
"I think you come to the Olympic Games and everyone wants to win and everyone wants to medal." Hamblin said. "And as disappointing as this experience was, there is so much more to this than a medal or winning."