It’s the time of the year when 18-year-olds in Ethiopia fret about their looming university entrance exams or immerse themselves with the latest trends in pop culture. But newly-minted World junior cross-country champion Hagos Gebrhiwet is not a typical teenager.
In fact, he is not a typical Ethiopian distance runner either.
“Qualifying for Moscow, that’s all I’m thinking of right now,” says the World junior record-holder for 5000m outdoors and 3000m indoors. “I just want to maintain my current best performance and keep doing my training properly and without fear. In Moscow, I aim to gain something big for my country and myself too.”
Gebrhiwet was already being talked up as the ‘next Kenenisa Bekele’ in some quarters, albeit in modest and hushed tones, following his breakout season in 2012 where he smashed the World junior 5000m record with 12:47.53 at the Samsung Diamond League meeting in Paris.
But the comparisons and plaudits have grown both in volume and clout over the last month since winning the junior title at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoscz, Ethiopia’s first victory in the event since 2008.
Ethiopia has had many junior cross-country champions who offered a lot of promise only to fall flat after turning senior. However, none of them at 18 have run faster 3000m and 5000m times than legends Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele at the same age or completed a tough 7.5km course in the Polish city in a stunning 21:04.
“The course in Poland was not good,” he recalls of the race where he obliterated a field containing Kenyan Leonard Barsoton and compatriot Muktar Edris. “What I saw upon our arrival in Poland had made me give up hope of victory. I was not thinking about winning, but asking myself ‘who is going to run and win in this kind of situation?’ When we started, the mud made things difficult. I was thinking of doing everything I could and so when I finally won with such a fast time, I really felt so happy.”
Battling against a difficult life
At first glance, Gebrhiwet’s story may look like another ‘rags to riches’ tale shared with many other East African athletes. But Gebrhiwet had it tougher than most after having to grapple with the loss of two parents and the responsibilities of raising five siblings on his shoulders since turning 13.
He was born and raised in Atsbi, a small town in the Tigray region in the northern part of the country, to a family of farmers toiling the land each day to support Gebrhiwet and his five sisters.
A challenging life was made difficult early on when Gebrhiwet lost his mother at the age of two due to illness. “My mother died before I was able to recognize her,” he says. “Apart from the things my father and uncle told me, I know very little about her.”
His father, Gebrhiwet Berhe, remarried and sought a better life for his children. Gebrhiwet was very much encouraged to pursue his studies and was a diligent student in school where he found and fell in love with sport.
“I used to play football, but my teachers told me to focus my natural talent on running,” he says. “My father did not like this. He thought sport would distract me from my education. I accepted my father’s advice, but continued training without telling him.
“I wasn’t convinced of my own ability until I won a 10,000m race in our school, beating even the experienced runners. I said to myself, ‘I could actually be good at this’.”
Dealing with another tragic loss
After winning over his own self-doubt, things were looking up for Gebrhiwet, who started representing his school in provincial and regional competitions until another devastating event set him back.
“My father died and I lost interest in everything,” he said. “I stopped training, I even stopped going to school. I decided to focus on farm work to support my sisters.”
He stayed away from school and training for three years before deciding to return to competition in 2010. His first race back was a 3000m run-off at the regional ‘All Tigray Games’ in Adwa, where Gebrhiwet finished second to capture the attention of coaches at the Mesfin Engineering Sports club, one of the emerging clubs in Ethiopia.
“It was my first big victory,” he said about his changing fortunes. “When I joined the Mesfin Engineering club, I began to get enough rest, proper training, good food, a good place to stay, and a decent salary. I asked our close neighbours to look after my family and promised them to help as much as I can as I moved out of our house and into the club’s camp.”
It did not take long for Gebrhiwet to establish himself nationally. After his debut national cross country race in 2010 where he finished 24th, he finished sixth in the 5000m at the 2011 Ethiopian Championships and was selected to represent Ethiopia at the World Youth Championships in Lille, France. There, in his first international competition, he finished fifth over the 3000m.
“I had big dreams of representing my country in big competitions,” he recalls of his first international race. “But I did not win and did not get to carry my flag. That made me very unhappy.”
But his first major international break came on the last day of 2011 when he won the Sao Silvestre 10km road race in Madrid, Spain. And with a 13:14 second-place finish in the Carlsbad 5000m (5km) road race in California, USA, behind compatriot Dejen Gebremeskel, Gebrhiwet broke the first World junior record of his career.
“Before Carlsbad, I had thought about running at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona,” he said. “But my time told me that I could aim higher.”
Unwelcome adventures on the road to London 2012 via Shanghai
Nevertheless, he was selected by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) for the Barcelona team and told not to leave the country, but Gebrhiwet knew that he had a fast time in him.
“My thinking was that going to Shanghai would cause no problems for Barcelona because there was enough time to return after competing in China,” said Gebrhiwet, who barely speaks his national language Amharic, let alone English or Mandarin. “But it caused a lot of controversy. I had to obtain permission from the Federation and was very late leaving for Shanghai and I missed my connecting flight from Guangzhou to Shanghai.
“I tried to buy another ticket from Guangzhou to Shanghai, but I was so confused and did not know what to do. I spent the night on the floor at the Guangzhou airport and the next day decided to return home. I had even started to look for an Ethiopian Airlines ticket desk when one person saw me and helped me get a ticket to Shanghai.”
But Gebrhiwet’s misery was not over. “When I arrived at Shanghai Airport, there was no one there to welcome me because I was too late,” he says. “So I had to travel to the competition area on my own by taxi, even though I didn’t have any money with me. They drove me to where I needed to go and explained my situation to get their payment from the competition coordinators. I had prepared well for the competition, but I was really tired when I got to Shanghai.”
He didn’t show any signs of tiredness when he won the race in 13:11.00, beating a field that included World record-holder Bekele.
After deciding to skip Barcelona, Gebrhiwet returned to competition at the Paris Diamond League, finishing second behind Gebremeskel in the 5000m and setting a World junior record of 12:47.53. It put him in medal contention for the 2012 London Olympics, but Gebrhiwet’s amazing year was not to have a perfect ending.
“I was doing so well in the Diamond League races, but ten days before the Olympic Games, my Achilles heel simply acted up,” he says. “Of course, I was expecting a medal in London. I had cancelled the World Juniors in Barcelona to concentrate on the Olympic Games. I was very disappointed it [the injury] happened so near to a big race.”
Doha start to track season, but Moscow is the big goal
Gebrhiwet’s talent may have shone this winter, but he knows that the big challenges are still awaiting him later in the year.
“I will run the 3000m in Doha and the 5000m in Birmingham,” he says of his Diamond League racing schedule. “I hope the times I achieve in these races will help me get selected for the Ethiopian team for Moscow. I want to win every race I run. I will keep working hard to get the fruits of my labours.”
He has already run faster than his role models Gebrselassie and World 5000m record-holder Bekele at such a young age, but is Bekele’s 12:37.35 World record on his radar this season?
“Nothing is impossible,” he says diplomatically. “If you train hard and believe in yourself, then any record can fall.”
Getting to grips with city life
Gebrhiwet admits that life has heaped huge responsibilities on his young shoulders that he cannot contemplate leading a life of luxury just yet. “I may be living in Addis, but my mind is always with my sisters,” says the youngster who lives in a rented house on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. “They live in the countryside and I plan to build my own house and bring them here soon.”
Any spare time, after training and recovery, is spent watching football and following his beloved Arsenal in the English Premier League and the rising fortunes of the Ethiopian football team who are currently leading their World Cup qualifying group.
“My favourite players are [Ethiopian football team captain] Adane Girma and Robin Van Persie,” he says. “But the person I have always wanted to meet is Usain Bolt. I got that chance during the London Olympic Games. Our team and the Jamaicans were staying in the same building in the athletes’ village.”
Gebrhiwet currently spends his weekends learning how to drive, but such distractions are hardly on his mind as he hopes to inspire a new generation of runners who could emulate the success of Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Meseret Defar.
“We [Gebrhiwet and other runners in his generation] will renew the history of Ethiopian athletics by emulating the achievements of our role models,” he says like a soldier rallying his troops. “I personally believe that I can do it.”
Elshadai Negash (with the assistance of Bizuayehu Wagaw) for the IAAF