Abbey D'Agostino was a good high school runner, but hardly great.
So when she committed to Dartmouth in December of 2009, she wasn't hailed as the next big thing, even in New Hampshire. Very few coaches and runners outside of New England even noticed.
At Masconomet Regional High School in Topsfield, Mass., D'Agostino had run a 5-minute outdoor mile as a sophomore to set the school record, but as a junior and senior she was dragged down by mononucleosis and an iron deficiency. Those years were more about potential than performance.
"She was like a 5-minute miler, a 5:02 miler, in high school, and they're a dime a dozen," said Mark Coogan, a former Olympian and Dartmouth's head coach for women's cross country.
At Dartmouth, though, something happened. After an injury early in her freshman year, D'Agostino morphed from high school good to college great. Now a senior, D'Agostino has won five NCAA championships in indoor and outdoor track and cross country, and she's not finished.
After being named the Most Outstanding Track Performer at the Ivy League indoor championships -- where D'Agostino won the 5,000 meters, her third consecutive mile title and was part of the Green's victorious 4x800 relay team -- she'll go to the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in Albuquerque, N.M., on March 14-15, as the defending champion in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters.
And she'll have a chance this June to win her third straight 5,000-meter title at the NCAA Outdoor Championships at Eugene, Ore. She's become the most decorated runner in school history, and her list of accomplishments is long: 10-time All-America in cross country and track; first Ivy League runner (man or woman) to win an NCAA cross country title; National Cross Country Athlete of the Year for 2013; and the first American woman to win both the indoor 3,000- and 5,000-meter championships.
Dartmouth -- its atmosphere, her teammates and coaches -- provided the perfect garden for D'Agostino to blossom. A once-overlooked kid in the Ivy League has risen to the top while competing against the nation's best.
"I can honestly say that if she were at, pick a school -- Stanford, Georgetown or whatever -- I don't know you could necessarily say, slam dunk, that you would have gotten the same results," said Abbey's dad, Eric D'Agostino. "Because I think the environment she's in and the support of teammates, the atmosphere at Dartmouth, has been a huge part of it. It hasn't just been being under a good coach."
Coogan, who also coaches the distance runners on Dartmouth's track team, acknowledges that environment has played a big role in D'Agostino's evolution, but not the biggest. At 5-foot-2½ with dark brown hair and a big smile, D'Agostino doesn't look scary, but she has a bite.
"She's a fierce competitor. We kind of joke in the track office, she's like a pit bull with a pretty face, you know?" he said, laughing. "She's a great kid, but she's a competitor. She wants to win."
Finding the passion
D'Agostino grew up in a family of runners. Her mom, Donna, ran track at UMass-Dartmouth and did triathlons when Abbey was young, and her father also ran. So when Abbey was looking for things to do in high school, she went out for cross country and track. But it wasn't a priority.
"I didn't really give it an opportunity to be a passion because it was just another activity," she said. Her parents saw her potential, but didn't see it develop.
"I think in high school, kind of the biggest thing that held her back was kind of the peer pressure of not wanting to stand out and just wanting to fit in," Eric said.
They thought if she ever got into the right environment "with other athletes that want to excel" and with the right coach, she'd thrive. She entered Dartmouth at the same time Coogan arrived to take over the cross country program and she began to feel very differently about running. She felt a kinship with her teammates, and their spirit fueled hers.
Four years later, she calls them her second family. "I was able to put a little more time and energy and passion into the sport," she said. "I wasn't burned out when I came to college."
She worked hard the summer before her freshman fall, had a setback with an ankle injury, then came on strong. Fit and healthy for the first time in a long while and in a situation with like-minded teammates and a coach she connected with, D'Agostino says running became "more of a lifestyle."
"Running was a very important element of our experience at Dartmouth and I realized that running could be simultaneously hard and fun, and that was the best thing about it," she said. "I was on a team where people shared the joy of the sport."
Coogan, who was on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team as a marathoner and was a long-time member of U.S. cross country and track teams, says he could see D'Agostino truly embrace running. He saw she wanted to learn, and so he started pushing her, giving her elite workouts. Soon, she began to believe in herself.
Then as a sophomore she won her first NCAA title, the outdoor 5,000 meters, and she got another boost. Plus, as a runner, she's technically terrific, says Coogan. Though she's not tall, her stride is long, and she's strong.
"She has great form," he said. "So her running economy is tremendous. She doesn't waste any energy out there. I think she's also super smart, so she runs races without wasting any energy. She always seems to be at the right place at the right time. She's not missing moves very often. She's not getting boxed in. She's pretty quick on her feet that way."
She also has that "pit bull" mentality that rears its head late in races. "When you've just got to kill yourself," said Coogan of the final 400 meters of a race.
"You've got to lay it out there, and she can do it. She does it. She knows she's not going to win every race, but she knows she doesn't want to lose and she puts herself in those good positions."
That determination is something her father has seen her whole life. He calls her "a worker," and says it also shows up in her academics.
"It's like it's never good enough," he said. "She's always doing things over and over to make things perfect. Sometimes it drives you crazy, too," he added, laughing. "But you learn through experience that sometimes good enough is good enough.
"Everything for Abbey has come through hard work. Obviously she has some natural ability, too, but I think hard work coupled with natural ability is a pretty good combo."
Always chasing goals
One race D'Agostino had failed to win, however, was the NCAA cross country championship. She finished third as a sophomore and was runner-up as a junior, just seven-tenths of a second off the lead.
So, going into the Nov. 23 championships at Terre Haute, Ind., she was determined to win her final opportunity. On a muddy 6K course on a cold, windy day, Iona's Kate Avery took a big lead, but D'Agostino had a plan and stuck to it.
"About halfway through the race I was feeling OK, so I decided to pick it up a little bit and gradually closed the gap," she said.
Over the final third of the race she flew from third place into the lead and won in 20:00.3. "She used her head again," Coogan said. "She ran smart."
Her parents were there to see it, and knew how special it was to her.
"She had one last chance at it, to make sure it didn't slip through her fingers," Eric said. "And to see her do it in adverse conditions when it was clear that day that a lot of people, good runners, were just mentally beaten by the weather conditions, that was one of the things we were most proud of, not only Abbey, but the whole Dartmouth team [which finished 16th]."
It was D'Agostino's sixth victory in six races in her senior season.
"I would say this is probably the most exciting individual title I've had in my career," D'Agostino said. "Cross country, since the day I started competitively running, has been my favorite."
Now D'Agostino is hoping to finish her senior year strong at the NCAA Indoors and then in her final outdoor season. She's looking forward to the Indoors even more than usual, she says, because she'll have teammates there. And the chance to compete with her teammates is everything to her.
"We live such emotional highs and lows together through this sport, and so to be able to share that is exciting," she said.
Coogan believes she could walk away from her college career with seven or eight NCAA championships. "That's a pretty good accomplishment for someone from an Ivy League school," he said, laughing.
D'Agostino will graduate in June with a degree in psychology. Eventually, she'd like to go to grad school. But before that, she'll launch a professional career, with an eye toward making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team and going to Rio de Janeiro. She just missed making the 2012 team in the 5,000 meters, finishing fourth.
Coogan believes her future can be as good as her recent past. "I've been around this sport a long time, and she's one of the most talented women I've seen," he said.
It's been a wonderful journey for D'Agostino, from under-the-radar recruit to college star.
"I would have laughed out loud if you would have told me I'd be here right now, four years ago," she said. "But I think it's one of those things. I think as I started to gain confidence, and the fact that running is a gift that I've been given -- I really feel that way -- and every race is just an opportunity to use it. I've accepted this is a really important part of my life, a platform for me.
"I know this has come into my life, and what a wonderful opportunity."