Feature12 Aug 2018

Teen prodigy Ingebrigtsen’s tale comes of age in Berlin


Jakob Ingebrigsten after the 5000m at the European Championships (© Getty Images)

It was the golden double that rippled around the world, a feat of athletic mastery most could only dream of at any stage of their careers, never mind at the tender age of 17.

But sit Jakob Ingebrigtsen down and ask him just how he became this good, this early, and the Norwegian is happy to elaborate and explain why his is an otherworldly talent that has not just been born, but also made.

“I’ve been a professional runner since I was eight, nine, 10 years old,” he says. “I’ve been training, dedicated and following a good structure – the same as my brothers – from an early age.

“Not too much,” he adds, “but a lot compared to runners in Norway. That’s the main reason.”

For years he has been on the radar of anyone with a finger to the pulse of underage athletics, but when Jakob completed the 1500m/5000m double this week at the European Championships in Berlin, his star truly went supernova.

Henrik, Jakob and Filip Ingebrigsten after the 1500m at the European Championships


But to understand how he got here, you have to rewind more than a decade, back to an underground car park in Sandnes, Norway – the hometown of the Ingebrigtsens – where it’s 7:10am, dark and cold.

It’s the kind of time most would understandably be wrapped up in bed, but here was Jakob, strapped to a pair of cross country skis, learning his balance as older brothers Henrik and Filip completed lap after lap after lap around the perimeter.

“Three years old!” says his father Gjert. “Talented boy.”

The footage was aired in the 2016 documentary series on Norwegian TV, Team Ingebrigtsen, which offers an unparalleled insight into the family’s success. Steering the ship, at least in a sporting context, is Gjert, who had no background in athletics but quickly realised his sons had potential after older brothers Henrik and Filip took up the sport.

“He learned as we went along,” says Henrik. “He’s a smart guy and he read all the books and talked to all the right people. Together we tried some things, failed a couple of times, then went back to what worked and started to build on that.”

The older brothers mixed a range of sports throughout their youth and while so too did Jakob, he specialised much earlier than them on athletics, something his older brother has his own take on.

Jakob Ingebrigtsen winning the European U20 cross country title


“He was useless at football!” said Henrik. “Jakob is born to run, simple as that – nothing else.”

Jakob himself believes that his early range of sports, and all the accumulated mileage, is what has led to his current performances.

“All of us have been doing football, skiing and running and a lot of different stuff,” he says. “It’s definitely something to consider – start being really active and training from an early age.”

He’s been tagged as a gifted prodigy ever since he took his first steps in the sport. At the age of 14 he clocked 3:48.37 for 1500m, at 15 he ran 3:42.44, then last year, at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene, he became the youngest ever to break the four-minute mile, running 3:58.07 at the age of 16.

For several years he has been amassing victories with ruthless efficiency, beating his older brothers’ times at comparative ages. In the TV series, a pre-teen Jakob admits to carrying a certain pressure to continue that success as he grows older.

“Everyone expects I will win and if I don’t it will be a big disappointment,” he said in the documentary. “My biggest dream is to be better than Henrik. I think when I am about 20 I will beat him.”

As it turns out, he got there three years early.

The first race was the 1500m, the distance at which Ingebrigtsen won a silver medal at last month’s IAAF World U20 Championships in Tampere, Finland, the distance at which both Henrik and Filip had won the European title before.

Here in Berlin, few expected Jakob to have matured enough to win gold, even if he had rocketed into title contention last month after a European U20 record of 3:31.18 in Monaco.

In the 1500m final, the early pace was steady, the Ingebrigtsen brothers appearing to follow advice from their father to stay out of trouble at the back.

But approaching two laps to run, Jakob swept to the front, cranking up the pace and stretching the field to full capacity. He passed 800 metres in 2:01.12, 1200 metres in 2:57.76, and when he hit the back stretch for the final time, he had the best milers in Europe sending out distress calls.

His last 300 metres, run in 40.34, carried him to his first European senior title, but celebrations were put on ice, Jakob’s mind immediately turning to the following night.

Jakob Ingebrigtsen wins the 1500m at the European Championships


“We started preparing for the 5K final as soon as we crossed the line in the 1500m,” he said.

And then he went and did it again. In a mind-boggling display in the 5000m final on Saturday night, Jakob stamped his authority on the continent’s best distance runners with the reckless disregard of a delinquent teen.

He hit the front with a little over three laps to run, then slowly tightened the vice on his rivals, a 54.09 final lap squeezing the last bit of life from their legs. He hit the line in 13:17.06 to break his own European U20 record.

“Winning a second title in two days is the result of having done this my whole life,” he said. “It was a little crazy to get this medal. This is huge.”

Watching on proudly – after being followed for most of this week by a film crew – was father Gjert.

For him, guiding the careers of three world-class athletes is tricky enough, but to do so while maintaining a healthy father-son relationship is extremely difficult.

“Definitely, and you’ve seen that in the series,” says Jakob. “It’s tough for him being both a father and a trainer and for us, being sons and athletes, but it’s part of the thing we have to do because we’re hoping to be the best in the world.”

Jakob Ingebrigtsen in the 1500m at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018


Gjert admits it’s not always plain sailing to get his sons to follow the blueprint he has drawn up for their career. “To convince them of my conviction that you can be the best in the world is challenging,” he says. “Parents run into that and I have struggled with it a lot.”

Shortly after the 5000m final on Saturday, Henrik, who is 10 years Jakob’s senior, reflected on his younger brother’s success. “I was there when he was born,” he said, “but I’m not sure he is 17 because he is crazy good.”

With those words, Henrik was speaking on behalf of the 60,000-strong crowd in Berlin, and indeed the many millions watching at home.

Kids, teenagers, adults, who for two dazzling nights were all made to feel a little old and unaccomplished, no matter their age, by Ingebrigtsen’s achievements. Yet what they also had in common was a child-like awe, a glowing appreciation for the 17-year-old athlete unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF