Hiwot Ayalew of Ethiopia in action at the 2011 World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Ayalew seeks to fulfil sister’s dream in Bydgoszcz

Ethiopian athletics is full of successful siblings with the likes of the Bekeles (Kenenisa and Tariku) and the Dibabas (Tirunesh, Genzebe and Ejegayehu) all winning global medals on both the track and cross-country. Now the Ayalew family looks to be the next in line.

When Hiwot Ayalew, winner of the Ethiopian trials last month, lines up for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz later this week, she will hope to do better than her older sister Wude in winning the family’s first individual World cross-country medal.

Despite her four appearances at the World Cross, Wude, the 2009 World 10,000m bronze medallist, has two fifth-place finishes (in Fukuoka 2006 and 2009 Amman) to her credit.

“She [Wude] was my inspiration to take up athletics seriously,” says Ayalew of her sister. “She has supported me in every aspect. When I began running, she had already started representing her country. I am proud of her.”

Strong Olympic debut, improving since Punta Umbria

There are several reasons why the Ethiopian athletics community is bullish about Ayalew’s chances in the Polish city. Since finishing 11th two years ago in Punta Umbria, Spain, the 20-year-old has made a startling improvement over the cross country and her preferred track event, the 3000m Steeplechase.

“An athlete will not remain in the same position,” she says. “But when I compare my performance with the one two years ago, I think I am at a better level.”

Ayalew certainly broke ranks last year when she made it on to the Ethiopian women’s 3000m steeplechase Olympic team in London and finished fifth as compatriot Sofia Assefa won bronze at the event.

“I would have done better if I had more experience and a stronger finish,” she says. “But it was not to be. My performance was ok.”

She has continued where she left off from last season winning the Cross Internacional de Atapuerca in Spain in November 2012 and then comfortably winning the battle for Bydgoszcz places at the Jan Meda race course in Addis Ababa, competing against the likes of three-time World cross-country bronze medallist Meselech Melkamu and Olympic 10,000m finalist Belaynesh Oljira.

“For Jan Meda, I had prepared well but I didn’t expect the big result as there were some strong senior athletes,” she says. “In my mind, they were the favourites, but I was still able to win. Now, there are seven athletes in our [women’s senior] team. We have been preparing well, staying at a hotel. I am ready to do my best individually and as a team too.”

No Dibaba, but Ayalew confident of her own chances

Ethiopia’s chances in Bydgoszcz have been dealt a blow by the withdrawal of three-time champion Tirunesh Dibaba, a wild card selection by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF), through a shin injury. While Ayalew believes that this is a setback, she is confident of her own chances in Poland.

“It is a big advantage to have Tirunesh in our team,” says Ayalew. “She is a great athlete; you can imagine what a morale-boost her presence is to all of us. But she is now injured and cannot compete, so the rest of us have to bring the results for our country. Personally, I think I am in a good shape so I hope to get a big result.”

Overcoming the fear of the barriers

Despite her early promise, the jury is out on whether the young runner can turn into a world-beating athlete like her compatriots Meseret Defar and Dibaba. But unlike the Ethiopian greats, Ayalew’s affection lies in the 3000m Steeplechase, an event in which she had to overcome personal fear before mastering.

“I used to be frightened just watching others compete in the steeplechase, let alone running it myself,” she recalls of her early track days where she aspired to emulate Defar and Dibaba in the 5000m. “I run well in the 5000m and wanted to represent my country at that event.”

She was no slouch over the event, clocking 14:49.36 at the Oslo Diamond League in 2011. It was a time that could get her into the World Championships team of many countries, but there was no place for her in Ethiopia’s team for Daegu.

Reality started sinking in that her dreams may not be coming true until her agent Hussein Makke came into the picture.

“He asked me to change my event and I refused to accept his advice because I thought he was asking me to shift to the Marathon,” recalls Ayalew. “He said ‘I am not saying that [switch to Marathon]. Why don’t you try it [the 3000m Steeplechase]?’ Then I said ‘I am not capable of doing it’. He insisted that I try and abandon it if it does not work out. I was not convinced enough, but decided to give it a try anyway. So he prepared a private coach who could help me train for the Steeplechase.

“After some sessions, he saw my progress and told me that I was doing fine. This gave me moral support and I started liking it. I used to be afraid of the Steeplechase, but when I started training for it, I became convinced that it was the right way to go for me.”

Long road ahead for Moscow

After her breakthrough year in the event, clocking 9:23.88 at the 2011 London Diamond League, she further improved last year, lowering her personal best to 9:09.61, an African under-23 best. Ayalew has big ambitions for the World Championships in Moscow later this year, but concedes that qualifying for the Ethiopian team remains her big priority post-Bydgoszcz.

“If I remain healthy, I first want to qualify for Moscow,” she says. “This year it will be difficult because there are many challengers. Sofia [Assefa], Zemzem [Ahmed], the two Birtukans [Adamu and Fente], Mekdes… they are all strong. So I have to train hard to qualify for Moscow.”

Despite her second-place ranking on Ethiopia’s all-time lists behind Assefa (9:09.00), Ayalew has been touted by her coaches as someone who could make a serious challenge for the World Steeplechase record, currently held by Gulnara Galkina-Samitova of Russia from the 2008 Olympic Games (8:58.81). While flattered by the suggestion, Ayalew believes in a step-by-step approach to improvement.

“8:58 is very difficult,” she says. “I want to go under 9:05 this year and be a medallist in Moscow.”

First, though, she has some family business to take care of this weekend in Bydgoszcz.

Elshadai Negash (with the assistance of Bizuayehu Wagaw) for the IAAF