Sifan Hassan and Yomif Kejelcha (© Philippe Fitte / Getty Images )
They were both born in Ethiopia but now live in America. They share the same training group and coach and this year the bond between Sifan Hassan and Yomif Kejelcha has strengthened even more after both have recorded a world mile record.
While it may be difficult to ascertain whether the latter fact is a global first, what is clear is that Hassan and Kejelcha are two athletes at the top of their game and both will be impossible to ignore at the IAAF World Championships in Doha (Sept 27-Oct 6).
To fully understand their journey to an almost identical juncture we must step back in time.
Born and raised in Ethiopia before leaving for the Netherlands aged 15, Hassan proved an athletics natural. A winner of the 2014 European and 2016 world indoor 1500m titles she was, however, disappointed with her display at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Placing fifth in the 1500m final and exiting the heats of the 800m she desired a change and her management encouraged the then 23-year-old athlete to relocate to Portland, Oregon as part of the Nike Oregon Project, which she joined in late 2016.
Kejelcha living up to U18 expections
Kejelcha arrived in Portland one year later. A phenomenal age-group talent, the Ethiopian claimed the 2013 world U18 3000m title at the age of 15 and the following year cruised to world U20 5000m and Youth Olympic 3000m gold medals. In 2016 the fifth youngest of nine siblings snared the world indoor 3000m title – coincidentally in his current adopted home of Portland.
However, his progress into the senior ranks has not gone perfectly smoothly. Later in 2016 he missed out on selection for the Rio Olympics and after placing fourth in the 2017 World Championships 5000m final in London he sought a fresh start.
“I wasn’t happy with fourth and I remember saying after the event that I am done with track – I want to go to the road,” he recalls. “I felt I’d stayed at the same level and hadn’t improved but my management insisted I keep going with track for at least another year and that I should try the Nike Oregon Project.”
Kejelcha, a non-English speaker at the time, (he speaks some English today and is improving) was initially daunted at the prospect but was reassured by the presence of a fellow Oromo speaker Hassan in Portland.
“Yomif decided to come because he knew I was here and that I could ease his transition into life in America and the project,” explains Hassan with her trademark laugh and cheeky smile.
For both, a difficult transition to new training regimen
However, the initial challenge for Kejelcha, who like Hassan is coached by Alberto Salazar, was not adapting to the language and culture at his new training environment, it was coping with the extra training load.
“That first six to eight months I suffered a lot,” he explains. “There were times when I wanted to go back home but I could always see the progress that I was making, so I knew it was the right decision to stay.”
Hassan could sympathise. She too had initially struggled to endure the pain of the endurance-sapping workouts in Portland.
“If we did mile repeats we would do way more than I did (when based) in the Netherlands,” she explains. “I remember one early session I did here of 400m and 200m repeats, I can’t remember how many we did, but I thought, ‘I am going to die, just shoot me’. I couldn’t move at the end of the workout.”
Over time, however, the pair have become more accustomed the training. While never easy, it is at least more bearable.
Last year both showed clear signs of improvement. Kejelcha retained his world indoor 1500m crown in Birmingham and set outdoor PBs for the 1500m (3:32.59), 3000m (a world lead 7:28.00) and 5000m (12:46.79). He also posted an eye-catching 59:17 for fourth on his half-marathon debut in Copenhagen.
Hassan revealed similar versatility and class in 2018. Claiming the European 5000m title she also registered Dutch records for the mile (4:14.71), 3000m (8.27.50), 5000m (14:22.34) – the former two as world leading marks – and also revealed her rich half-marathon potential by recording a European record of 1:05:15 to win in Copenhagen on her 21.1km debut.
“Back when I was an 800m an 1500m runner I always thought I could run well in the 5000m,” explains Hassan. “But the half marathon, well, that just happened. My coach told me I was going to run 68 or 69 minutes (before Copenhagen) so to run 65 minutes was very much a surprise.”
This year the pair have made an even bigger impact. Back in February Hassan set a world 5km road record of 14:44 in Monaco. Meanwhile, Kejelcha was in world record-breaking form indoors, recording a stunning mile time of 3:47.01 in Boston.
“Since that world record he (Kejelcha) had become a bit of a diva,” jokes Hassan of her good friend. “It is all me, me, me.”
During the outdoor campaign, Kejelcha has proved invincible over 5000m, claiming wins in Stanford, Shanghai and Lausanne, and also placing third in a time of 26:49.99 on his 10,000m debut at the Ethiopian Trials in Hengelo.
Hassan has arguably made a bigger impression in 2019. Registering European records for 3000m (8:18.49) and 5000m (14:22.12) and posting an impressive 31:18.12 for her 10,000m to win in Stanford the highlight came in Monaco in July as she wiped 0.23 from the 23-year-old world mile record with a 4:12.33 clocking.
While the pair are unquestionably in the form of their life on the track, their off-track bond cannot be underestimated.
“It was very hard for me at first (in the US),” explains Kejelcha. “I couldn’t speak English but Sifan helped me massively. After two weeks of being here I forced myself to try and speak English.”
“I am like his sister,” adds the charismatic Hassan with a laugh. ”I take him everywhere.”
The pair watch movies together and eat together but Hassan feels she too had benefited hugely from Kejelcha’s presence as it has helped her re-engage more with her Ethiopian roots.
The double world indoor 1500m champion has re-introduced her to Ethiopian honey and butter and the traditional Ethiopian barley drink of Beso.
“I’ve visited Ethiopia twice last year and it has been nice to be a little closer once again to the Ethiopian culture,” she adds.
Swimming pools and rock climbing
The World Championship plans for both will be keenly anticipated. Kejelcha has qualified for the 10,000m after finishing third at the Trials but he is still awaiting the selection announcement from the Ethiopian federation regarding the 5000m.
Meanwhile, Hassan has indicated she’d like to pursue the 5000m and 10,000m double.
Tim Rowberry, coach at the Nike Oregon Project, has seen firsthand their progression in Portland and he has been impressed by not only their appetite for hard work but also their preparedness to take on a fresh challenge.
“We encouraged them both to learn how to swim and we expected some push back on this, but both of them were happy to do so,” explains Rowberry, who says he wanted them to learn to swim so they could safely use their facility’s underwater treadmill. “Yomif had never even been in a pool until a few months ago and they are both very quick learners.”
“Sifan also goes rock climbing at the Nike HQ climbing wall,” he adds. “She has never previously done rock climbing, but decided to give it a go. She enjoyed it and has continued because she believes it makes her upper body stronger.”
What is undeniable is both will be a major podium threat at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 and for Rowberry he is simply delighted they are a part of the Nike Oregon Project.
“Having them on board adds a different dynamic to the team,” Rowberry said of the Dutchwoman and Ethiopian. “They are very coachable and are talented to an extent I haven’t seen with previous athletes I’ve worked with. They are both very special.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF