In 1988, fresh out of the University of Maryland, Mark Coogan competed in his first U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. Hyperbole played no role when the young man told everyone that he was just happy to be there.
After he was eliminated in the semifinal of the 3000-meter steeplechase, he recalled earlier this week, “I had the best five days of my life. Coming to this meet and going out at night, it was the best thing that ever happened. We couldn’t believe we were there. We were so happy. We took the race seriously; I ran well, but once we were out, we were out.”
Four years later at the Trials, Coogan reached the steeplechase finals. In 1996, he made the U.S. Olympic team in the marathon.
Coogan, now 46, is back at the Trials, this time as a coach of two Dartmouth University athletes: Alexi Pappas, who finished 23rd in the first round of the steeplechase, and Abbey D’Agostino.
D’Agostino is happy to be here, too, but with a twist: She could leave her first Trials as an Olympian. The newcomer has been chosen by Track and Field News magazine as a favorite to make the team despite just turning 20 last month, weeks before winning the NCAA 5000-meter title as a sophomore. On Monday night, she won her preliminary heat.
“Some people might say it’s not good to win the first round at the Trials, but I think it is a good idea because she’s still learning to win. This is all new to her,” said Coogan.
“I felt more relaxed than I’ve ever been before the race,” she said. “I was just taking it all in and felt really good.”
D’Agostino was not a huge star coming out of Masconomet Regional High School in Massachusetts but had one of the best freshman seasons in Dartmouth history, finishing third at 5000 meters in the NCAA championships in an Ivy League record time of 15:40.69. She is already a five-time All-American, and her NCAA win earlier this month gave Dartmouth its first women’s individual title in school history. Even before that victory, D’Agostino was named U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Northeast Region Female Track Athlete of the Year, and Coogan was named USTFCCCA Northeast Region Women’s Track Assistant Coach of the Year.
The only American woman to beat her this outdoor season has been Molly Huddle, the American record-holder, at the Mt.SAC Relays in early April. There, D’Agostino ran a personal best 15:23.35.
But D’Agostino says she feels no pressure: “We’re still fresh and young and this is like, ‘Wow, we’re here, we made it all the way here. Let’s just get in there and do our best.' It’s icing on the cake. One of the things we talk about a lot is to treat it like any other race. Yes, this is an incredible opportunity, but there’s no need to prepare any differently for this race than there is for any other.”
On Monday night, D’Agostino was as poised addressing the media as she was in winning her semifinal. “I was definitely not as mature as Abbey is,” said Coogan. “She’s smarter, and thinks things through better than I did at the time.”
She also has a coach who knows how to keep things loose even as he’s preparing his team, offering up videos of old friends and fellow Olympians Steve Jones and John Treacy to illustrate a point or telling them about the time he was disqualified twice in the same meet. His team makes fun of him behind his back for rehashing the old days, says D’Agostino, but “we love when he tells stories. We do listen, and take what we can from it. He is amazing. We trust him so much, his experience.”
And of the 5000-meter final coming up tomorrow night?
“I never dreamed of being in this position now,” said D’Agostino. “But now that it’s a reality, that maybe it could happen, I’m just going to give it my absolute best and if I make it, that’s just out of this world. If not, my goal is just to be brave and push myself to my limits. If I do that, I will be satisfied, whatever the end result.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg