It usually takes young Ethiopian runners time to ward away the shyness and agree to interviews, especially when their most recent performance have catapulted them to the short list of favourites ahead of an upcoming major championships.
And it took some time and patience to convince Jemal Yimer, one of the key athletes to watch in the fight for the men’s title at the IAAF/Trinidad Alfonso World Half Marathon Championships Valencia 2018 following his scorching 59:00 debut for the distance at the RAK Half in the UAE last month. The 21-year-old finished second there in the fastest debut half marathon performance ever.
“Jemal does not like to talk much about his performances, nor show off or boast about his achievements,” his agent Malcolm Anderson says. “He is grounded, patient, and listens to the various people who support his athletics.”
Behind his quiet demeanor and short answers to interview questions lays a steely discipline that has so far been rewarded by upward mobility in an international career that has spanned less than two years.
Rapid rise in national ranks
Before venturing into the half marathon for the first time, Yimer’s best performances came at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 where he placed fifth in the 10,000m and earlier that year when he finished fourth in the senior men’s 10km at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017. These results, after his nation team debut at the 2016 African Championship in Durban, South Africa, where he was fourth in the 10,000m, show an athlete who is consistently finding a place on Ethiopia’s ultra-competitive major championship teams and knocking on the door for a medal.
“The world half marathon [championships] was my plan for 2018 because there are no major [track] championships in my event [10000m],” he says.
“My preparation has gone very well. I expect the team and myself to win medals [in Valencia]. That is why I am super excited when I am included in the team for the world championships. When I train in the national, the feeling is just different.”
Competing in Valencia is yet another step in fulfilling a prophesy that began two decades ago in the South Wollo zone of Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Born to a family of farmers and raised by his mother because his father was serving in the military during his early years, Yimer grew up with a sense of national duty and longed to serve his country in the line of duty.
Strong coach-athlete bond
“I really remember the time when I started running,” he says. “It was in 2010 when I was in school. I am not sure [what the event was], but I was watching TV and it was showing Tirunesh (Dibaba) and Kenenisa (Bekele) racing. I really wanted to be a runner and I was ready to fight for it. It meant wearing the national colours. It was an honour.”
His route to the top would go through the youth development centre in Debreberhan, very close to his home town, under the tutelage of coach Habtemariam Ayehu who would go on to play a crucial role in his development.
“He was ready to do anything for me,” he says. “There is this story in 2015 that I remember. I had a traffic accident when I was on my way to training. Habte was waiting for my arrival at the training ground. I was in a very good form. Unfortunately, the small van I was traveling in fell. That day, I saw him punching the vehicle [in anger] and crying after watching my critically wounded knee. I trust him after that because I watched him that day. He is like a mom and dad. He is the one behind my story from village to the world championships.”
That trust has helped guide Yimer to call-ups to Ethiopian squads for the last two years. Although Valencia is a major stepping stone in his development and presents a chance to finally break medal ground, Yimer says his immediate future lays on the track where he will be aiming for honours over the 10000m at the 2019 world championships in Doha and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“I am a man of the track,” he says. “I feel like the track is where I breathe better. I can train there the whole day.”
Elshadai Negash (with the assistance of Abiy Wendifraw) for the IAAF