Saif Saaeed Shaheen (QAT) photographed in Eldoret, Kenya, during his interview (Saddique Shaban) © Copyright
General News Eldoret, Kenya

Shaheen - “Injury, what you make out of it eventually makes the difference between a comeback and oblivion”

After nearly two years out of competitive athletics with only a few recovery races earlier this year, some of which he never finished, Qatar's World 3000 Steeplechase record holder Saif Saaeed Shaheen, in an exclusive interview with the IAAF website from his base in Eldoret, has declared his fitness to return in 2009.

“I am back. The situation (injury) is now fully healed.  In fact, I have resumed full scale training with no problems at all. The doctor has given me a clean bill of health.”

The double World champion (2003 and 2005) has been sidelined by a nagging patella tendon injury in his right knee since late 2006 that has seen him miss a number of championships including the 2007 World Championships in Athletics, Osaka Japan and the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing, China.

Shaheen underwent a successful operation in Germany in early March to rectify the situation but he never recovered full fitness in 2008.

The injury came with a great personal and professional cost for the Qatari, who was born in Kenya.

“Can you imagine watching what you should be doing on Television? It was untenable.  Most time I would tell my friends to watch the races (for me) and tell me the winner and the (winning) time.”

At one point, he admits he nearly broke down while watching the 2007 World Championships. “I should have been there to defend my Helsinki title”, here calls, while looking away.

“Brimin Kipruto’s win commands my respect. His double back to back victories in Osaka and Beijing eased my pain. While I am disappointed he didn’t break my record, I know with a formidable challenge coming from himself and Paul Kipsiele Koech, a new world order can be set. Records are there to be broken.”

Attitude change

Shaheen admits he knows a lot has changed since he was last at his very best in competition, and as such he will need to change his own outlook.
“I will be looking at things differently. As a matter of fact, I will consider myself ‘a new kid on the block’. I will put aside the accolades and the achievement of the years before injury and open a new chapter in my life”.

“Never give up! That’s (the attitude) which has kept me going. I had to seek counselling from friends and colleagues in order to fully understand my predicament,” revealed the champion as he recalled his countless attempts to beat the injury particularly in 2008.

“After covering just a short distance during the 2008 Kenya cross country trials in Nairobi, I thought I was in good shape. Little did I know I was adding a strain to the leg. My recovery was set back many days. I have been struggling to contain the injury with much success since then.”

He was however impressed with his 8:22.86 over Two Miles which he ran in the Prefontaine Classic 2008 on 8 June, clocking 7:47.53 for 3000m in the process of that run.
“I am happy about that time, considering my situation then. Though I didn’t finish some other races including the Athens Grand Prix (at 3000m Steeplechase; 13 July), I have had to take solace in the fact that an injury is a package that comes with the game, but its what you make out of it that eventually makes the difference between a comeback and oblivion.”

“The support I have received from friends and family has turned the period of injury into more of a sabbatical leave of reflection than an absence of injury.”

Scouting for a coach

After such a long time out in the cold, one would naturally expect a number of changes to Shaheen’s training programme. He has done more than just that.

“After a period of reflection and soul searching, I have decided to part company with my coach Renato Canova. While I thank him for his invaluable services since 2005, I feel a change of tactician will make me realize important specifics of my anticipated return. I need individualized coaching as an integral part of my new dispensation. I wish him well.”

Amman is the first goal

“I hardly have time to relax”, volunteers Shaheen when asked of what he intends to do for the remaining part of the year.

“I don’t mix training and competitions. I train to compete, not the other way round. But I will be taking part in select cross country races in Kenya and elsewhere before taking my first full strength race in Amman, Jordan in March 2009” at the World Cross Country Championships.

You want to challenge Bekele?

“Oh no, not quite. I have much too much respect for him to challenge his dominance. Amman 2009 will hopefully provide the impetus I need to attack a sub-8 minute target in the year. I believe I can.”

With the new athletics season almost taking shape, the World record holder in Steeplechase has many surprises up his sleeves but can’t hide the biggest of them for next year.

“I will be in Germany for the World Championships. I need my title back!” with this last remark, be begs to take leave to prepare for his afternoon training session in the high altitude area of Iten, in Keiyo district of the Rift Valley province.

Saddique Shaban for the IAAF