Building upon the laurels he collected in the U20 and U23 ranks, Yemaneberhan Crippa won his first medal at the senior level when he finished third in the 10,000m at the European Championships in Berlin’s historic Olympic Stadium in August. When he crossed the finish line, his expression suggested that it wouldn’t be the last the 22-year-old rising Italian star would earn.
“I strongly believed that I could win a medal until the last bend,” Crippa said. “I told myself that I had to clinch my first senior medal.”
That it would come over the longest distance on the track came as a surprise to many, including Crippa.
“This distance was not even in my plan two months ago. I am happy that I decided to take part in this race. I did not want to settle for fourth place,” he added.
Crippa made a major breakthrough in 2018, a season in which he broke Francesco Panetta’s National U23 records in the 5000 and 10,000m, clocking 13:18.83 and 27:44.21 respectively. He went on to break Stefano Mei’s national U23 3000m record as well, clocking 7:43.30.
“I did not expect to dip under 28 minutes in the 10,000m, especially because it was my first race over this distance on the track,” he said of his race at the European Cup in London. “It was a big honour to break national records held by Francesco Panetta and Stefano Mei.”
A few days after clawing his way onto the 10,000m podium in Berlin, Crippa narrowly missed a second medal when he finished fourth in the 5000m behind Norwegian brothers Jakob and Henrik Ingebrigtsen and 10,000m winner Mourad Amdouni.
“It was maybe my fault, as I made some mistakes in the 5000m final,” he analysed. “But I am still young and I have a lot of work to do to be competitive at the highest level against the African and US runners. I come back home with a third and a fourth place. I can be happy considering the great rivals, who beat me. I tried to keep the pace with Jakob and Henrik, but they changed the pace and I could not respond.”
Crippa speaks highly of the teenaged Jakob Ingebrigtsen, seeing him as an inspiration even though he’s four years his junior.
“What he did in Berlin was crazy. He was the biggest star of the European Championships. He represents a great example, because he has shown that it is possible to achieve great results with hard work.”
‘I was born in Ethiopia but I feel completely Italian’
Crippa’s remarkable story began on 15 October 1996 in Ethiopia’s Wollo Province, in the country’s north-eastern reaches. Yemaneberhan, which means “right arm of God” in Amharic, lost his parents during the civil war in Ethiopia at age seven in 2003, and landed in an orphanage in Addis Ababa, about 385 kilometres from their home in the town of Dessie. Six months later, he was one of the nine children adopted by Roberto and Luisa Crippa and settled with them in Montagne, a small village near Tione in the Valli Giudicarie in an area of western Trentino in northern Italy.
“When I was a kid, I helped my parents take the cows to pasture,” he remembers. “I still remember the moments of my childhood in which I chased cows or I went for a walk to get water. In Ethiopia life was simple but I found everything I needed.” Those are distant memories now, but ones he cherishes.
“I was born in Ethiopia but I feel completely Italian without forgetting my origin.”
Crippa hails from a sporting family. His brothers Kelemu and Nekagenet, who were also adopted alongside him, are long distance running standouts who’ve achieved good results in mountain running competition. Nekagenet, whose name means “water of paradise” in Amharic, won the world U20 mountain running title in 2013.
A documentary film “Yema and Neka” on the life of brothers, was produced by filmmaker Matteo Valsecchi and shown during the Trento Film Festival in May 2015. The film is not only a story of the Crippa brothers, but it also deals with topical issues such as social integration and the values of sports.
He and Nekagenet share a rented home in Trento near an athletics track. “I have a great relationship with my broher Nekagenet,” he said, adding that his other brothers are their biggest fans. Their father Roberto often travels to watch them compete.
Success rooted in cross country
Crippa began his sports career as a football player but his running talent was soon spotted by the late coach Marco Borsari. Following Borsari’s sudden death in 2011, Crippa has been guided by Massimo Pegoretti, a middle distance runner with 3:36.18 1500m credentials, whom he likens to a second father.
Crippa came to the fore in January 2012 when he won a youth race at the Vallagarina International Cross Country meeting in Rovereto, just a few miles from Trento. On that cold winter morning he caught the attention of Italian athletics fans not only for his running talent, but also for his smile and genuine mood.
In 2013 Crippa contributed to the Italian U20 squad’s sixth place finish at the World Cross Country Championships. Later that year he finished sixth in the 1500m final at the World U18 Championships in Donetsk, clocking a national U18 record with 3:45.02. In 2014 he won European U20 individual and team gold medals in Samokov and repeated the feat the following year in Hyères.
“It was a fantastic feeling, when my father Roberto followed me for the first time abroad in Hyères and gave me both the Italian and the Ethiopian flags during my lap of honour.”
In March 2015 he finished 20th overall, and first among Europeans in the U20 race at the World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang. A few months later he won European U20 bronze in the 5000m in Eskilstuna.
“I have fond memories of the European U20 Championships in Eskilstuna, although I aimed to win the gold medal. I always ran at the front but unfortunately I was missing something in the final 100 metres. I have a good memory of U20 events, as I contributed to history with my medals and I am very proud of that.”
During the 2016 season he represented Italy for the first time at senior level with an eighth place finish in the 5000m at the European Championships in Amsterdam.
“I had no expectations,” he said of his first senior outing. “I was happy with my first time in a big senior championships but I lacked experience. But it was useful for the future to compete in a full stadium.”
Later that year he took bronze at the European U23 Cross Country Championships, leading Italy to team gold. He repeated the feat by winning another European U23 bronze in Samorin in 2017.
“I was happy with the podium in the individual race, although my goal was the gold medal. But I knew it would have been more difficult to compete in the U23 race against runners with bigger experience at international level.”
In February 2017 Crippa broke the national indoor 5000m record held by 1978 European champion Venanzio Ortis, clocking 13:23.99 in Birmingham. That race was won by British middle-distance legend Mo Farah with a European record of 13:09.16. Crippa left with more than just a national record.
“My friend Mo Farah gave me his vest as a present during the Birmingham meeting and I keep it in my bedroom together with the ten international medals I have won during my career.”
Comparisons with Cova
Later in the year Crippa won the European U23 5000m title thanks to an impressive kick over the final 100 metres. Many fans compared his kick to that of Alberto Cova when he won the world 10,000m title in 1983.
“It’s a big honour to be compared to Alberto Cova, but this comparison is a bit exaggerated,” he said, adding that he’s watched videos of Cova’s run countless times.
“After setting the Italian indoor record in the 5000m something went wrong in my preparation. I was disappointed to miss the qualifying standard for the World Championships in London and I was happy to bounce back by winning the European U23 title.”
Aarhus on the horizon
Over the years Crippa has developed a close friendship with Yohannes Chiappinelli, who took steeplechase bronze at the European championships and finished third at the Continental Cup in Ostrava earlier this month. Chiappinelli was born in a village near Addis Abeba and was adopted by a family from Siena at the age of seven. Like Crippa, Chiappinelli’s talent emerged in the youth and junior ranks and he went on to win titles at the European U20 and U23 championships in 2015 and 2017.
“Yohanes and I are close friends,” he said. “We keep in touch every day. We have a very similar story and we shared great experiences together during competitions around the world. I am very happy with his medal in Berlin.”
Next on Crippa’s agenda is the European Cross Country Championships in Tilburg in August, which he’s hoping will be a springboard to the 2019 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Arhus next March and then later to the World Championships in Doha
“I am aiming at the 2019 World Championships in Doha. I finished third in the 10,000m and fourth in the 5000m in Berlin, but I feel that I have not achieved all my goals. I want to fulfill my Olympic dream in Tokyo 2020.”
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF