Jesus Espana celebrates his European 5000m title in Gothenburg (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Jesús España overcomes all barriers to fulfil his dream

Spain’s Jesús España took the European athletics scene by storm last summer thanks to his relatively unexpected continental championship 5000m gold medal in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The 13 August 2006 will forever remain fresh in the memories of the 28-year-old Spaniard as he managed to beat Britain’s Mo Farah in an unforgettable home straight duel with the narrowest ever winning margin in the history of the 5000m at the Championships, just nine hundredths of a second (13:44.70 versus 13:44.79).

From 11th to 1st in four years

A frantic 2:26.28 final kilometre enabled España to write a golden chapter in his career, improving from his previous performance in Munich four years ago where he placed an unremarkable 11th in his debut at a major senior championship.

1500m his early focus

España was born in the village of Valdemoro, on the outskirts (30km) of Madrid. He took up athletics seriously at the age of 13 and soon realised that the 1500m event suited him the most.

His first international appearance took place in Ljubljana (Slovenia) venue of the 1997 European Junior championships where a 9th place left him satisfied: “That was my first relevant competition abroad and was quite an experience. In addition, the standard of that 1500m final was one of the highest ever: Gert-Jan Liefers of The Netherlands took the gold medal but other now well-known specialists such as Ukraine’s Ivan Heshko (5th), France’s Mehdi Baala (7th) and Marius Bakken of Norway were also gathered there.  I think that the 1978-born generation has proved to be a quality crop.”
As a junior his fastest 1500m time was 3:47.36 but his improvement in the following years was hampered by several injuries. “During the next campaigns (1998/2001) I suffered a lot of problems especially in the summer and I couldn’t confirm my potential.”

2002: Vienna indoor success and tackles 5000m

At the 2002 European Indoor championships held in Vienna, España made a sensational breakthrough, taking the bronze medal at 3000m to complete an historic clean sweep of medals for Spain, although Britain’s John Mayock was also rewarded with the joint bronze medal.

“That success was a milestone in my career as I realised I could be in the hunt for the medals at a major event. That spring my coach and I decided to tackle seriously the 5000m event as my training in winter had been very much alike to a distance runner and endurance work was not a problem for me”.

In fact, he clocked a fine 28:33 for second place at the “San Silvestre Vallecana” a 10km road race held in Madrid on New Year’s Eve.

Absent from the 2003 Paris World Championships and 2004 Athens Olympics through lack of form due to injuries, España suffered another disappointment as he didn’t advance to the Helsinki World final last year. It was then that he set himself the target of performing well at the following year’s outdoor European Championships.

Gothenburg gold, a turning point in his career

Looking back to the Gothenburg European Championships, España admits that “I arrived there with a 13:16.74 clocking, the fourth fastest time among the competitors. Of course it wasn’t an impressive time but I knew that I had a 13:05/13:06 performance in my legs according to my last trainings, the best ever, so I was confident of beating the rest of the field including the fastest athletes of the season, Ireland’s Alistair Cragg and Britain’s Mo Farah, both having dipped under the 13:10 barrier prior to the Europeans.”

Once in Gothenburg the three-time (2003/05/06) Spanish 5000m champion was fully aware of his best asset in the final, a blistering kick which has brought him lots of victories in his career.

“I expected that Cragg would push hard over the last three laps and I was right. My plan was to live with his pace and try to overtake him in the final 200m but suddenly everything changed when he was forced to drop out injured. For a few seconds I didn’t know what to do but fortunately Mo Farah took the lead and played Cragg’s role. That was positive for me and could overcome him tightly in the final home straight to grab the title. After so many troubles my joy was immense.”

What would have happened had Cragg not been forced to retire from the race? “We’ll never know it but I was convinced of my winning chances.”

“To dip under 13:00? It’s a matter of time”

España’s 2005 personal best of 13:15.44 for the 5000m might seem far off what will be required to put him in the medal picture at a global – Worlds or Olympics – championship in the years to come.

But him explains: “To be in the top-8 at a major event would be a fine result for me but I don’t want to rule out anything better, even a medal. I’m conscious that I should be able to run under 13:00 to be competitive at such a high level and definitely feel myself capable of breaking that barrier some day, the only secret is to remain injury free and to keep on improving season after season. That would be a dream come true and I would fulfil all my expectations in chronometric terms.”

The talented Spaniard explains how his 2006 summer campaign developed:

“My primary goal was Gothenburg and my season was plotted just so I could run a few 5000m races: Huelva, where I got the qualifying standard for the Europeans (13:16.74), the Spanish Championships where I gained a berth in the Spanish squad, and then I went straight to the Europeans. On paper the IAAF Golden League meeting held in Zurich was the best chance to clock a fast time but that competition came barely five days after my win at the Europeans and I felt tired due to the subsequent tributes and interviews to the media.”

Might the family hierarchy will be altered in years to come?

The second of three siblings, España has a younger brother named Francisco who already has a successful U-23 pedigree as he snatched a 1500m bronze medal at last year’s European Championships held in Erfurt. Jesús and Francisco share training sessions everyday in Madrid under the guidance of Dionisio Alonso. Aged 22, Francisco will never forget the date of 21 October 2006 as for the first time he defeated Jesús (4th in 4:23 and 5th timed 4:25 respectively) at a one mile road race held in Vallecas (Madrid). The race was won by Portugal’s Olympic and World 1500m bronze medallist Rui Silva who was followed by Spain’s Arturo Casado.

“I forecast a brilliant future for my brother. He’s determined to reach the top and that’s crucial to be successful. His short-term target is to run a fast 1500m because he has not run under 3:40 yet although he was in a 3:37 shape last season so my family 1500m record of 3:36.53 is seriously threatened (laughs). I guess that he will follow in my footsteps and will move up to the 5000m some day or even to the 3000m Steeplechase, an event that suits him a lot since he’s more strength than me and is a powerful athlete.”

Sebastian Coe, his lifetime idol

España openly declares his admiration for Britain’s double Olympic 1500m champion Sebastian Coe:

“When Seb was in his winning days I was hardly 2 (Moscow 1980) and 6 (Los Angeles 1984) years of age but I have read a lot about him and still keep a videotape of his win at the 1984 Olympics. The shame is that the videotape is already broken due to overuse as I’ve seen it dozens of times. I consider that Coe was ahead of his time, he ran 1:41.73, 25 years ago! He is still second on the all-time world list, that’s amazing. I remember that he was so elegant and stylish, it seemed that Coe had always an additional gear in comparison with the others. When I was a child I bought a book entitled “Better training for distance runners” written by his father and coach Peter Coe. I really enjoyed its reading, liked me a lot and even nowadays I take a glance to it from time to time.”

World Cup – a brave attempt; Mottram, a reference

España’s performance at the recent IAAF World Cup may have gone absolutely unnoticed as he came a distant 6th with a 7:50.09 clocking over 3000m but taking a closer look at how the race developed it should be mentioned that the 1.73m tall Spaniard was the only athlete who tried to challenge Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele and Australia’s Craig Mottram.

“By that date (17 September) I had already lost the freshness I enjoyed in August, I was not at my peak; even so my target was to finish as close to them as possible but I simply could not live with their brisk pace.”

"Of course Bekele’s defeat was a major surprise for me, as Mottram’s victory was overwhelming. I’m convinced that he is a potential sub 12:50 5000 athlete; if he arrives fit to Osaka I consider him the clear-cut favourite for the next Worlds.”

The 26-year-old Australian took the first 5000m medal by a non-African born runner since 1987 at the 2005 Worlds in Helsinki, and the European champion confesses that “I have a lot of respect for Mottram’s achievements. "It’s very encouraging for me to see how a non-African is able to win a global medal, that gives me hopes for the future.”

Birmingham indoor goal

Next stop in España’s career will be the European Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England, scheduled for 2-4 March 2007.

“Coincidentally, my last indoor appearance came at the 2003 World Indoors held there where I missed the bronze medal by 14 hundredths of a second when Haile Gebrselassie snatched gold. I’d like to prove to everyone that my success in Gothenburg was no fluke. The field assembled in Birmingham might be of a very high calibre with Alistair Cragg, Mo Farah running in front of his home crowd, Rui Silva, my fellow Spaniards, etcetera.”

“I’m very keen on the 3000m indoor and my wish is that all my rivals can contest the Europeans 100% fit so a hypothetical title would be a very valuable one.”

To conclude, two funny stories. España’s successes are contributing to popularization of the letter “ñ” which is lacking on many computers worldwide. He also tells laughingly that when he competes abroad and the event officials ask the athletes one by one their names in the Call Room the dialogue usually goes as follows (España literally means Spain): “What’s your name” “España” “Yeah, you come from Spain, but what’s your name?”

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF