Michael Phelps and Ian Crocker pose for a photo at the Olympic Games Athens 2004 on Aug. 20, 2004 in Athens, Greece.
Every Olympic Games, we revel in athletes winning gold medals and setting world records. But what often stays with us are the moments when athletes—whether or not they win—display selfless acts of kindness that exemplify the true Olympic spirit.
Sometimes we see these moments play out in front of us—like when American runner Abbey D’Agostino tripped over New Zealander Nikki Hamblin in the second heat of the women’s 5,000-meter at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, then the two women helped each other to the finish line. On the final day of the Games, they both received the International Fair Play Committee’s Fair Play awards.
But often displays of sportsmanship take place far from the camera’s lens. This is the case right now during the COVID-19 crisis. Countless Olympians and Olympic hopefuls are giving to their fans, communities and health care professionals in myriad ways.
Some, such as four-time Olympic gold medalist Venus Williams and gold-medal-winning cross-country skier Jessie Diggins, are doing Instagram Live workouts for anyone who wants to watch. Others—like moguls skier Hannah Soar, who’s raising money for Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports by pedaling her bike around her adopted state—are creating or joining in on fundraisers for charities or COVID-19 relief efforts.
Here are examples of four athletes known for their sportsmanship and fair play and the unique ways they are helping people during the coronavirus pandemic.
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Abbey (D’Agostino) Cooper
When most last saw Cooper, she was on crutches at the Rio Games. The middle- and long-distance runner, now 27, had significantly damaged her knee after colliding with Hamblin on the track in Rio. Their act of sportsmanship, helping each other get up and finish the 5,000, became a touchstone performance of the 2016 Olympic Games.
Since then, she has married, switched coaches and moved to western North Carolina where her husband Jacob is a sports psychologist at App State University. Recovery from knee surgery took longer than expected, “mostly because of all the other imbalances it created,” she said by phone from home.
Cooper is aiming for her second Olympic Games and is grateful to have more time to train. Bedeviled by injuries since before the Rio Games, the seven-time NCAA champion and Dartmouth College graduate is hoping to string together many months of consistent training before next year’s Olympic trials.
During the coronavirus lockdown, she has had a multi-pronged approach to helping people. Her most unique effort is giving talks about managing uncertainty.
Her talks are based on her experience leading up to the Rio Games when she was dealing with injuries, such as a stress reaction that was diagnosed three weeks before the Games began. To date, she has spoken to Fellowship of Christian Athletes groups, as well as high school and other sports teams.
“The topic [to the FAC groups] was basically how to use this truth that God is able to provide far more abundantly than we could ever ask for or imagine during the most uncertain times,” she explained. “I talk a lot about the lead-up to Rio and what it really looks like to just have patience for the day before you, and then to grip this sure hope that we have in Christ.”
She has given her talks via Instagram Live, Facebook Live and Zoom, and adapts the talk to a secular audience.
Cooper is also helping promote a 21-day challenge initiated by one of her sponsors, which encourages people stuck at home to move every day.
“It could be picking up sticks in the backyard,” she said. But Cooper is participating by posting her daily training.
Her husband Jacob has also created podcasts for student-athletes on topics from motivation to grief to managing anxiety.
“I’m mainly just a conduit for initiatives others have started,” she said, “but grateful for the chances to do so!”
Shannon Bahrke Happe
Shannon Bahrke Happe is a three-time Olympian and two-time Olympic medalist. And when the moguls skier was in the heyday of her decade-plus-long career, from 1998 through the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, she and her now-husband Matt Happe shared an unpublicized act of kindness.
Whenever halfpipe skier David Wise came through Salt Lake City where the Happes live, the freeskier and his young family stayed at the Happe house. It was long before Wise won his first Olympic gold medals. Bahrke Happe knew Wise because they had grown up in California and shared the same freestyle coach. With three Games under her belt—including a silver medal won at the 2002 Games and a bronze in 2010—Bahrke Happe shared with Wise both her home and the wisdom of what helped her succeed.
“We felt like we were their home away from home,” said Bahrke Happe. “It was a really nice way to pay it forward.”
Now Bahrke Happe is paying it forward to summer Olympic hopefuls. Through an entrepreneurial group in which she is involved in Salt Lake City, she started Rally With Champions, a streaming service highlighting 2020 U.S. Olympic qualifiers and Olympic hopefuls who share their stories, focusing on motivation and the challenges that they have overcome. Each 30-minute workshop is free, but Bahrke Happe hopes people will like what they hear and donate to help fund the Olympians’ journeys.
“I just thought what if we did all these live virtual events to help raise money for these athletes who were just told they have another year of so much uncertainty,” she said by phone from Utah. “I can’t imagine what that feels like. Most of these athletes don’t make much money anyway. I don’t think people at home realize they didn’t just lose their jobs, they don’t really have jobs that pay money.”
The series began Thursday, April 9, with Bahrke Happe as moderator. Each workshop runs Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7-7:30 p.m. EDT through May 12, and can be viewed on demand at rallywithchampions.com.
To date, Rally With Champions has hosted athletes such fencer Mariel Zagunis (fencing), who with four Olympic and 14 world championship medals is the most decorated U.S. athlete in her sport’s history, talking about chasing her Olympic dream, and taekwondo athlete Paige MacPherson, a 2012 Olympic and two-time world championship medalist, discussing mental toughness.
“I always think about my circle and how I can take care of my people, and my people are Olympians,” said Bahrke Happe. “This is my way of giving back.”
Dara Torres was on her way to the top of the “most Olympic medals by a U.S. woman” chart when she stopped the show to help a fellow competitor. It was the semifinals of the 50-meter freestyle at the Beijing 2008 Games—Torres’ fifth Olympic Games—and Swedish swimmer Therese Alshammar had torn her suit. Torres convinced the officials to delay the race so Alshammar could change her suit, and they complied.
Torres, 41 at the time, won the semifinal heat and went on to win her 11th Olympic medal (of 12 total)—a silver—in the 50 free.
Now Torres is helping her fans stay fit during the coronavirus quarantine. Every day since March 14, she has posted a daily 40-second-or-so exercise on Twitter.
“What I was finding very early on with being stuck at home was just going a little bit stir crazy,” she said by phone from her home in Florida. “If I work out and I’m going stir crazy, I can imagine people who don’t have a home gym could be [even more] stir crazy.”
Known for her fitness regimen, Torres has used her vast experience, especially training for her last Olympic Games in 2008, to post a unique exercise video daily. Each exercise can be done with household items (a pillow, can of soup, broom, water bottles, etc.), and Torres gives instructions in the videos so everyone from beginners to experienced athletes can follow along.
“It was a way to give back using what I know and what I’ve done my whole life,” she said.
Most of her videos have over 1,500 views, with fans thanking her for getting them moving.
At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, a 19-year-old American named Michael Phelps was having the best week any swimmer had had in over 30 years. In seven different events, he had won seven Olympic medals, including five golds. And it might have been six golds had the U.S. men fared better in the 4x100 freestyle. In that race, Ian Crocker was devastated after he swam a slow leadoff leg in the final, touching the wall in last place almost two seconds off the lead. The rest of the team, including Phelps, pulled the U.S. into bronze-medal position.
A few days later, Crocker learned that he was off the 4x100 medley team. Phelps announced that he would give up his spot so that Crocker, whom he called “one of the greatest relay swimmers in U.S. history,” could have the chance to redeem himself. Crocker did, swimming the fastest butterfly leg in the 4x100 medley final, and the U.S. men won Olympic gold.
Now Phelps has stepped up to provide COVID-19 relief on a couple fronts. On March 20, the most decorated Olympian of all time donated a “game worn” suit cap and googles to athletesrelief.org. Donors “bid” on items by making at least a $25 donation, then the items are raffled to the bidders at the end of April.
To date, Phelps’ cap and goggles have pulled in $1,965 in donations. The entire Athletes For COVID-19 Relief campaign has brought in over $215,000, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund. (NFL tight end Rob Gronkowski, who donated a signed football, is so far the biggest ‘winner,’ with $41,645 raised to date.)
Then on April 9, Phelps announced that he had donated to TalkSpace, an online behavioral health service with which he partnered a year ago. His donation adds 500 additional months to the company’s ongoing initiative to provide 1,000 months of free therapy to medical workers who are experiencing stress and anxiety on the front lines.
“Honored to join TalkSpace in support of the superheroes of today—our medical workforce,” Phelps tweeted. “Especially during these challenging times, it’s important that we all take care of our #mentalhealth.”