Updated 23 March 2013
Hiwot Ayalew, Ethiopia (3000m SC, 5000m)
Born: 6 March 1990, Sekela Destrict, near Gish Abay, Amhara region, Ethiopia
Lives: Addis Ababa
Height: 1.72m, Weight: 50kg
Club: Commercial Bank
Coach: Yohannes Mohammed and Bezuneh Yaye (National Team)
Manager: Hussein Makke, represented in Ethiopia by Haji
“I didn’t know the jumping technique and I didn’t want anyone to see me, so my coach trained me when there was nobody else at the stadium, but after 20 days of training, I won my first race (in Barcelona) and that gave me real encouragement.”
Those are the words of Hiwot Ayalew - a promising young Ethiopian athlete - a rising 3000m Steeplechaser, that is, ever since she made the switch away from flat 5000m running in July 2011.
Hiwot grew up in the rural village of Kolele, Sekela district in Gojjam north western Ethiopia, near the small town of Gish Abay - 477 kilometres from the capital Addis Ababa. She is the younger sister of 2009 World Championships medallist Wude Ayalew, with whom she has often been confused. Her younger brother Aweke Ayalew is also a 5000m runner.
Hiwot started running with Wude in school. In 2006, she joined Bank Sport Club: “When I was a teenager, I heard a radio programme about local sport clubs. I wished to be a member of this club and fortunately I joined my favourite club.”
But she was by no means an instant success, and only made an impact in athletics in 2010. Third over 5000 metres at the Ethiopian Championships, Hiwot then won the 8km race at the MOHA Addis Ababa Cross Country Championships in December.
She opened 2011 by making her first ever international appearance in January at Le Mans in France, where she won the 4.9 km Cross Ouest-France, defeating more titled opponents including World and Olympic medallist Ejegayehu Dibaba. “I prepared well. I was fresh for international competition and with two laps left I decided to run fast and separate myself from the group.”
Hiwot then qualified for her first Ethiopian team through the Jan Meda National Cross Country Championships, and a month later, in March, competing alongside her sister Wude, she finished 11th in the 8km women's senior race at the 2011 IAAF World Cross Country Championships Punta Umbria, Spain – a race won by the reigning World champion at 5000 metres on the track, Vivian Cheruiyot.
Hiwot’s growing reputation resulted in several invitations to run on the IAAF’s Diamond League circuit, and she duly established herself further by running a 5000m PB of 14:49.36 for eighth place at the Bislett Games in Oslo.
But after a seventh place finish in 14:57.62 in Paris, Hiwot’s manager convinced her to switch events mid-season and that change of direction would dramatically alter her fortunes. But that was not before a frantic three weeks of training, with a new coach, Yohannes Mohammed, in order to transform her into a steeplechaser.
After training for three weeks in her new event when no one was around, the win in her first ever Steeplechase race at the Meeting International d’Atletisme in Barcelona, on 22 July, was to start a run of much better results, despite her struggling to get to grips with the technique needed to quickly get over the steeplechase barriers and despite some questioning regarding her decision to switch events.
Visa issues saw her arrive just hours before the start of the steeplechase at the London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace at the start of August. But once the entry barriers had been cleared, she proved herself in the race as well - running a then lifetime best of 9:23.88 to take second place behind 2010 African Champion and 2009 World Bronze medallist Milcah Chemos Cheywa of Kenya, but ahead of two other more experienced Kenyans, Mercy Njoroge and Lydia Rotich.
Although she missed out on a place in the Ethiopian team for the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, Hiwot did represent her country for a second time at the All-Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique. There, she won the silver medal at 3000m Steeplechase (10:00.57) behind Kenyan winner Hyvin Jepkemoi (10:00.50): “It was a very difficult race, but it was a big result for me,” commented Hiwot about her first and so far only international championship medal.
Following her track season, Hiwot returned home to finish fourth at the 10Km road race Great Ethiopian Run.
The two sisters ran together early in 2012 as Hiwot was beaten only by Wude in the Spanish cross country race at Elgóibar, named in memory of Ethiopia’s 1968 Olympic Marathon champion Mamo Wolde.
After another winter of cross country and a flat track 3000m in Luanda, Angola, Hiwot won her first national title in May, when she easily saw off African silver medallist and World Championship finalist Sofia Assefa. However, this didn’t qualify her for the Olympic 3000m Steeplechase team, as Ethiopia doesn’t have first-past-the-post trials, as in Kenya.
However, Hiwot took further steps to impress the selectors, as she won another steeplechase at an IAAF World Challenge meeting in Rabat, Morocco, and she then went on to twice more lower her personal best; first with a third place finish in Diamond League meeting at Eugene (9:15.84), before smashing it again in Oslo, where she again was third in a fabulous race won in a new African record by Milcah Chemos that put the Kenyan fourth on the all-time list with 9:07.14. Sofia Assefa’s 9:09.00 broke the Ethiopian National record, while a 9:09.61 clocking also broke Hiwot into the World top ten women’s 3000m Steeplechasers ever. This was the first steeplechase ever outside of the World Championships or Olympics where more than one woman broke 9:10.
Hiwot had a bit of a hangover in her next Steeplechase race at the Samsung Diamond League meeting in Paris, where she could only manage sixth at the Stade de France and in a much slower time. However, she was soon informed that on the strength of the rest of her year particularly in that race in Norway, she would be heading for the Olympic Games.
After arriving in London with the Ethiopian team, Hiwot comfortably qualified for only the second ever Olympic Steeplechase final for women, which also proved to be an historic one for Ethiopia. Not because of Hiwot's fifth-place finish in 9:12.98, but because her team-mate Sofia Assefa became the first Ethiopian woman to medal in this relatively new addition to Olympic athletics programme.
Afterwards, Hiwot commented: “I prepared well for London, and I was doing well during the final itself until the last 200 metres. I felt I didn't have a problem, but I ran out energy. I got my tactics wrong. On the last lap, Sofia (Assefa) and Chemos were in front of me (battling for bronze). I looked at them and instead of concentrating on my own race, I started to worry about whether Sofia would be able to hold off Chemos. I was looking at it as if I were watching a movie. So I didn't notice the last barrier when I arrived at it. Looking at our training, we didn't get as good a result as we could have, but this race did give us hope for the future.”
Indeed, Hiwot immediately bounced back with a second-place finish in the next Diamond League race in Zürich and third at the ISTAF meet in Berlin.
Hiwot took to the roads in autumn, clocking 15:37 for her 5km debut in Rennes, then started off her campaign to go to her second World Cross Country Championships by claiming race wins in Atapuerca, Spain, and Allonnes, France in the latter part of 2012 and followed that up with another Spanish victory at the start of 2013 at the European Champions Clubs Cup cross country in Castellón, representing her Turkish club.
She then completed her individual preparations for Bydgoszcz by dominating the Jan Meda International Cross Country from start to finish; even though said the weather was bad there was a huge turn-out for the event in Addis Ababa that also acts as World Cross Country Trials.
An admirer of Tirunesh Dibaba, Hiwot is impressed by her running style.
Hiwot got married to young Ethiopian marathon athlete Girma Tilahun in 2011, and says about athletics: “If I don't train I can't eat, I run to have good results.”
5000m: 14:49.36 (2011)
3000m Steeplechase: 9:09.61 (2012)
3000m: 9:29.79 (2012)
5000m: 16:17.1A (2010), 14:49.36 (2011)
3000m Steeplechase: 9:23.88 (2011); 9:09.61(2012)
10km: 34:30A (2010), 33:22A (2011)
2011 11th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Punta Umbría
2011 2nd All Africa Games, Maputo
2012 5th Olympic Games, London - 3000m SC
2013 1st European Champions Clubs Cup cross country
A note on Ethiopian names: Ethiopians are customarily referred to by first name or first and second name together, the second name being the father's first name. (The grandfather’s first name is sometimes added as a third name, and is optional in much the same way that a Western middle name is frequently omitted; however, it is mandatory on all new Ethiopian passports.)
Prepared by Haimanot Turuneh Torode for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2013