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Feature29 Nov 2014

Hussein hurdles into Swiss athletics history

Kariem Hussein after winning the 2014 European 400m hurdles title

Swiss 400m hurdles star Kariem Hussein grabbed the headlines in mid-August at the famous Letzigrund Stadium in Zurich when he surprised many people and won the European title, bringing the delirious home crowd to his feet on a chilly and rainy night.

A personal best of 48.96 on what is effectively his home track saw him become just the fifth Swiss athlete to win a European title.

His end-of-season run of form continued 13 days later when he returned to the Letzigrund for the final of the IAAF Diamond League, where he finished fourth but again reduced his personal best to 48.70.

“To return to the place where I had just won the gold medal and to run in front of my home crowd was amazing," said Hussein. "I didn’t have the same pressure like two weeks before at the European Championships, so I could really enjoy that evening at the Wellklasse."

In mid-September, Hussein rounded out his stunning summer and finished second behind South Africa’s Cornell Fredericks at the IAAF Continental Cup in Marrakesh, taking a further slice from his personal best when he clocked a European-leading 48.47.

“I set my personal best in my last race of the season as a member of the European team. It was amazing. I knew that I could run faster than 48.96 but I had a really stressful time immediately after the European Championships. My mind was tired but my body was still able to run fast times.”

The tiredness was down to his sudden celebrity status with everyone now wanting a piece of the new European champion.

“That evening all my important friends and family were in the stadium. To see them and to share these emotions with all of them was indescribable. I knew that I could reach the final and if you are in the final everything is possible. Somehow I expected a medal but the gold was a surprise."

Struck dumb

“I wanted this title so much but I could not immediately grasp what I had done when I crossed the finish line. I was speechless because I could not plan this win in advance.

“The crowd was awesome," he added. "Normally I am not emotional but on the podium I had tears in my eyes when the audience supported me so much. I slept only one hour after the race. After watching the final at least 20 times I realiaed that the medal is real."

He has become a national hero since his European title, acquiring the media-generated nickname of the ‘Swiss Pharaoh’ because of his Egyptian origins.

His father Ehab hails from Egypt and played volleyball for the national team. He moved to Switzerland 35 years ago where he met his future wife, who comes from the Swiss municipality of Tagerwilen.

However, it wasn’t his father’s sport, nor athletics, that first captured the attention of the self-proclaimed fan of English Premier League side Manchester United.

Like another Zurich European champion Adam Gemili, who played for the Chelsea football youth team before becoming a world-class sprinter and winning the European 200m title in Zurich, Hussein also started his sports career in football.

“Sport has always been a hobby. I was a passionate player for the local football team FC Tagerwilen (a strong amateur side) at the age of 16 and my dream was to pursue a football career.

“However, my father works as an osteopath and he used to bring me to the hospital and I got fascinated by my father’s work. It soon became clear that I wanted to follow the example of my father and become a doctor. That desire grew with age.

“During a middle school athletics championship, I also cleared 2.01m in the high jump without a specific preparation; there I was approached by Swiss coach Werner Dietrich who invited me to join his training group. At the beginning, I tried events like the 200m, the 400m, the 110m hurdles and high jump before focusing on the 400m hurdles at the age of 20."

Medicine man

“I also decided to stop playing football when I started studying medicine; to do a team sport as well as study is much more difficult than to compete in an individual sport," said Hussein. "I started studying at the age of 20. Juggling sport and studies is difficult but somehow it works. You just need to find out how to schedule practice and learning."

Hussein ran his first 400m hurdles race in July 2009 in Bern, where he clocked 52.52, narrowly missing the qualifying standard for that year’s European Under-23 Championships.

In the same year, he finished second at the Swiss championships before winning four consecutive national titles between 2011 and 2014.

He dipped under the 50-second barrier for the first time in 2012 and qualified for the Olympics but, sadly, he was forced to miss the Games because of an injury.

However, the European title has banished some of the painful memories of losing out on the Olympic experience and Hussein now has his eyes on making his Olympic debut in Rio in just under two years’ time.

He ended his breakthrough season in fourth place on the 2014 world list, which definitely augurs well for the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Bejing although he will probably need to improve his personal best even further to challenge the likes Fredericks, Jehue Gordon, Michael Tnsley and Javier Culson for a medal in the Chinese capital.

Hussein will also face the additional and continued challenge of juggling his medical studies with his training schedule.

“My focus is on training hard and improving every day. This year I will invest more on my studies than I did last year. This means that I will need to schedule my time more efficiently. I got my bachelors degree in 2012 at the University in Fribourg and I am planning to finish my masters degree at the University in Zurich in 2017.

“The double burden of competitive sport and study is a major challenge and requires a good organisation,” added Hussein.

However, Hussein showed in Zurich that he can rise to a challenge, even if it is one presented by a timetable as much as his track rivals.

Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF

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