The athletics world is accustomed to seeing Ethiopian women winning 5000m or 10,000m titles, but no one from the East African nation of 94million whose last name does not start with a ‘D’ had been able to get to the top of the podium at the Olympic Games, IAAF World Championships, IAAF World Cross Country Championships, or IAAF Continental Cup over the past decade prior to mid-September.
This strange streak ended when Almaz Ayana won the 5000m at the IAAF Continental Cup in Marrakech, Morocco.
In the probable absence of her two illustrious compatriots Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar, Ayana is now being touted as a potential medal contender at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing next summer.
“Being called the successor to Tirunesh and Meseret does not frighten me,” said the 23-year-old Ayana.
“I grew up listening about Tirunesh and Meseret on the radio. I am proud that people are comparing me with them. My plan is to achieve more than they did and to do so with God’s help.”
Her victory in Marrakech was one of two major titles in the Moroccan city this year. The other came just over a month earlier when she beat another team mate, world indoor 3000m champion Genzebe Dibaba, in a pulsating race to win the African 5000m title.
Understandably, Ayana has fond memories of the picturesque holiday destination, not for its tourist getaways but the serious business of athletics.
“I would be happy if championships are held there all the time,” she says of Marrakech with a big smile, “It is the city where I have a lot of good memories. The stadium and its track were comfortable for me.”
With Defar taking maternity leave to give birth to her daughter Gabriella and Dibaba stepping up to make her debut over the marathon in 2014, Ayana has duly stepped up to fill their big shoes. But, perhaps more than she cares to admit, both Defar and Dibaba have had a major hand in pushing her from being a world junior record-holder in the steeplechase to a runner able to mix it with heavy hitters over the 5000m.
Ayana got her breakthrough in the summer of 2013 when she shadowed Dibaba for 10 laps of the 5000m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris before narrowly losing out to the world record-holder in a super-fast 14:25.84, a massive personal best.
It was a result that helped her leapfrog other pretenders and earn a place in Ethiopia’s team for the IAAF World Championships later in the summer in the Russian capital Moscow.
“I remember that I ran three races before Paris (two over the 3000m steeplechase and one 5000m) in eight days,” she recalled.
“At the end of June, I returned home to run another steeplechase for my club at the national championships and was very tired from competition, but I wanted to honour my commitment.
"I ran in Lausanne in another steeplechase and just wanted to get the Paris Diamond League 5000m out of the way and return back home. I was very tired, but I was told that I was going to race against Tirunesh and knew I had nothing to lose.
“The conditions were great that day and I just gave it a go. I was extremely surprised to run my personal best and qualify for Moscow.”
With Dibaba opting to run only the 10,000m in Moscow, Ayana did not get a chance to renew her rivalry with the two-time Olympic champion but, after cruising through the 5000m heats, she got her chance to duel with one of the most successful 5000m runners of all time.
She approached the final, not with the cautious optimism of a young upstart, but with the confidence of a seasoned 5000m specialist.
“I knew that Meseret had a superior finishing kick and decided to lead during the first six laps to stand a better chance of winning the race,” she said, recalling her tactics that day.
“I finished third and won bronze, but I think I would have finished second had I not led for too long.”
It was a remarkable result for an athlete who, until just a few months before the World Championships, had spent the previous four years of her track career as a confirmed steeplechaser.
Although she improved the world junior record over the barriers in 2010, a mark of 9:22.51 at the Diamond League final in Brussels, after earlier that summer finishing fifth at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Canada, Ayana admits she had no particular affinity for the event.
“I got into the steeplechase because I did not want to disappoint my club (Defence Sports Club) coaches when they scouted me during a regional event.
“But I also thought that after four years, the 5000m would be more difficult. I was afraid of moving up to the 5000m when my husband Soresa Fida first mentioned the idea.
"I was very hesitant, but after a lot of discussions, I decided to give it a go.
"My manager also questioned my potential over the event, but I remember Soresa saying ‘whether she can cope or not, she must try it’. I decided to listen to his advice and have no regrets today.”
After a successful year in 2014, Ayana is already looking forward to the 2015 outdoor track season where her major ambitions are to win the 5000m world title and attempt the world record over the event.
“Breaking the world record is possible,” said Ayana, whose personal best is nearly 14 seconds behind Tirunesh Dibaba’s mark of 14:11.15.
“And I will be thinking about it whenever there are favourable conditions,” she added.
Elshadai Negash (with the assistance of Bizuayehu Wagaw) for the IAAF