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Updated 23 March 2009
SENTAYEHU Ejigu, Ethiopia (3000m, 5000m, Cross Country)
Born: 21 June 1985, Debre Markos, Gojjam, Ethiopia.
Lives: Addis Ababa.
Manager: Mark Wetmore.
Coach: Woldemeskel Kostre.
While virtually all of Ethiopia’s runners hail from rural areas, or the outskirts of towns and cities, Sentayehu Ejigu grew up in the central provincial town of Debre Markos, where her father, Ejigu Tamrat, and mother, Maretch Asmare, owned a clothing store. “Besides myself, there is no one in my family who hasn’t worked in a store,” said Sentayehu, whose siblings all entered the business world. The tenth of eleven children, she has two brothers and eight sisters.
But “Mimi,” as she is referred to at home, was the family’s errand-runner of choice as a young girl, since she was quick and loved to run. “‘Send Mimi!’ is what everyone would say,” recalled Sentayehu. A school sports teacher, Michael Seyoum, suggested she run, setting her on what became her life’s path. She won over 1500m and 3000m at a schools competition and over 6km on the road in the town of Bahr Dar representing her zone.
Michael encouraged her to join other athletes and train, and although some family members discouraged her from running in the cold early mornings, she had an ally in her brother-in-law Mulugeta Gelaw, an avid sports fan who had founded a local soccer club. Her results convinced others in the family to support her running. “When you win, no-one objects,” said Sentayehu.
She won at a national competition in 1998 and, over the next two years, she moved to Addis Ababa where she was recruited into the Banks athletic club, and began competing abroad. Her first international race was a road relay in China where she and the 2007 World 5000m champion Meseret Defar, then also a young member of the Banks club, formed part of the third-placing Ethiopian team. Sentayehu was to spend many of the next few years placing behind Meseret and her peer Tirunesh Dibaba. At the Banks club, Sentayehu also met 1999 World Youth 800m silver medallist, and national record holder, Berhanu Alemu, whom she was to later marry.
Sentayehu made the 2001 World Youth Championships team and took bronze in Debrecen, Hungary, over 1500m in what remains her personal best, 4:15.89. She also made the podium at the 2002 African Championships where she took silver over 3000m behind Uganda’s Dorcus Inzikuru in 9:16.77 at altitude in Nairobi. She placed 2nd behind Meseret in Linz, Austria, but won in Helsinki, and ran an 8:48.30 season best in Zürich, while another GL meet served as her international 5000m debut in 14:53.99 in Berlin, where she was 7th and Tirunesh was 6th.
Sentayehu began a slew of runner-up finishes over the years behind Meseret and/or Tirunesh at the Boston Indoor Games with a 2nd place over 3000m behind Meseret and ahead of Tirunesh in 2003. She also placed 6th in the junior race of the Lausanne World Cross. “It was muddy, but as a team, we won,” she said. That year, she took 3rd at the nationals in the outdoor 3000m, which was won by Meseret, and won over 5000m in Chiba, Japan, while a 15:00.53 in Oslo made her the 5000m reserve for the Paris World Championships, which Tirunesh won.
In what turned out to be a landmark year, 2004, Sentayehu recorded a 14:58.85 Boston indoor finish behind Meseret and Tirunesh and a 14:35.18 (still-standing personal best) outdoor 4th place behind Tirunesh and ahead of Meseret in Bergen, Norway, where former Ethiopian Elvan Abeylegesse ran a then-World record. “We were all very happy,” said Sentayehu. She made the Olympic team, finishing 10th in Athens while Meseret and Tirunesh medalled.
Later that year, however, Sentayehu began experiencing heel and calf pain that dogged her for several years. She was a 5000m reserve at the 2005 Helsinki World Championships but fared better at the 2006 Moscow World Indoors, placing 4th behind winner Meseret. That year, she was 2nd again at the Boston Indoor Games behind Meseret, and she also ran a 15:17 PB for 5km on the road in Carlsbad, California, where Meseret ran a 14:46 world best. But a heavy blow awaited Sentayehu in the form of the illness of a sister, whom she nursed at home for the next year or so, putting her own career on the back burner during part of that time, and especially when the ordeal ended with the loss of her sister in October 2007. Berhanu provided much-needed support during that time. “His words comfort me,” said Sentayehu.
She is just beginning a comeback period, while continuing to recover from the setbacks of injury and family loss, and having resumed hard training in August 2008. “I’ve prepared well,” she said after winning an Addis Ababa cross country clubs championship at the beginning of February 2009, defeating former national 3000m champion Koreni Jelila.
Running without either Meseret or Tirunesh in Boston for the first time, Sentayehu took her first victory there in an impressive 14:47.62 over 5000m, which made her, at the time, the 4th fastest in history for the event, following Tirunesh, Berhane Adere and Gabriela Szabo. Shadowing 2007 World 5000m eighth placer Shalane Flanagan until the final 150m or so, Sentayehu outleaned her at the tape, and won 14:47.613 to Flanagan’s 14:47.618, which resulted in both being given the same time of 14:47.62, an American national record for Flanagan.
“When I was about to take off with about 200m left, something held me back,” said Sentayehu, who was thrilled with the outcome and whose time eclipsed those of Olympic medallist compatriots Gete Wami and Derartu Tulu. “I didn’t know their times but that’s very good,” she said. “I’m very happy, thank God.” Two faster times have since been clocked in 2009 by others, including a new World record by Meseret, but Sentayehu remains the all-time 6th fastest.
Two weeks later, returning her focus to her season goal, the World Cross Country Championships in Amman, Sentayehu made the Ethiopian team at the national trials behind Wude Ayalew, Meselech Melkamu, Gelete Burka and Koreni. “If God helps you and you qualify to go to the World Cross Country, you don’t look this way or that way, you just focus on it and you prepare well,” she said. With the 2008 champion Tirunesh skipping the World Cross, several of her teammates will be eyeing the title, and Sentayehu hopes to medal and be part of a team gold medal.
3000m: 8:43.38 (2006)
5000m: 14:47.62 (2009)
3000m: 8:42.63 (2004)
5000m: 14:35.18 (2004)
3000/5000: 2002 – 8:48.30/14:53.99; 2003 – 8:57.88i, 8:46.51/15:00.53; 2004 – 8:55.17i, 8:42.63/14:58.85i, 14:35.18; 2005 – 8:46.67i/14:51.11; 2006 – 8:43.38i, 8:50.10/-; 2007 – 9:03.37i/15:27.84; 2008 – -/15:06.37; 2009 – -/14:47.62i.
2001 3rd World Youth Championships, 1500m
2002 7th Grand Prix Final, 3000m
2003 6th World Cross Country Championships, junior
2003 5th All Africa Games, 5000m
2003 7th World Athletics Final, 5000m
2004: 10th Olympic Games, 5000m
2004 5th World Athletics Final, 3000m
2006 4th World Indoor Championships, 3000m
Note on Ethiopian names: Ethiopians are customarily referred to by first name only, or first and second name together, the second name being the father's first name.
(The grandfather’s first name is sometimes added as a third name, and is optional in much the same way that a Western middle name is frequently omitted.)
Prepared by Sabrina Yohannes for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2009.