If one fact was gleaned from the world of men’s steeplechasing in 2019 it was that Ethiopia is no longer prepared to play second fiddle to their great East African rivals Kenya.
For decades, Kenya has consistently swept up the medals on the global stage while the Ethiopians – despite their abundance of world-class endurance talent – have barely registered.
However, last year witnessed a significant sea change.
At the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Lamecha Girma claimed their first ever World Championship steeplechase medal as he set an Ethiopian record of 8:01.36 for silver – just 0.01 behind Conseslus Kipruto.
Meanwhile, in a further illustration of the rising strength of Ethiopian steeplechasing, Getnet Wale secured the Diamond League title and Ethiopians comprised three of the top 10 on the world list to match the same total as Kenya.
Dig a little deeper and it is perhaps little coincidence that both Girma and Wale belong to the same training group as Ethiopian steeplechase coach Teshome Kebede.
Yet while Girma earned most of the plaudits thanks to his breakout performance at the 2019 World Athletics Championships, Wale’s season was also seriously impressive as he set a pair of Ethiopian senior 3000m steeplechase records (plus three U20 marks) and boasted a 2-1 head-to-head record against his compatriot and training partner.
Born one of eight children in Sekela in south eastern Ethiopia, Wale’s foundation for future success was built on the daily 4km run to and from school and he proved a natural once he turned his hand to competitive athletics at school.
At the age of 13 he claimed provincial titles over 1500m and 3000m (flat) – a performance which earned him a huge opportunity to take the next step in his athletics journey.
“A coach from the Ethiopian Youth Sports Academy came to our school to select athletes,” explains Wale. “I won the 1500m and 3000m, the coach was interested in me and told me I have a bright future in athletics. He told me to get permission from my parents, collect my school release and come back with him to Addis Ababa.”
That coach was Kebede, who convinced Wale his future was in the steeplechase.
He initially found adapting to the event challenging, but over time he embraced the challenge of the steeplechase and in 2016 was selected for Ethiopia to compete at the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz.
In what was his maiden international competition, Wale won a bronze medal but his lion-hearted performance in Poland did not go unnoticed.
While contending for gold, he tumbled and fell at the penultimate water jump but picked himself off the floor and quickly reattached himself to the lead group. Then at the final water jump he stumbled and fell once more, only to rouse himself for another push to claim a richly deserved bronze in a personal best of 8:22.83 – just 0.16 behind the silver medallist Yemane Haileselassie of Eritrea.
Chasing an Olympic qualification mark for the Rio Olympics, he says he was “full of stress” but he was pleased with his efforts in Bydgoszcz to secure bronze.
“Since it was the first international medal in my career, I was proud of myself,” he explains. “I had planned for a better results but that is sometimes the challenge of the steeplechase.”
For Wale’s manager Hussein Makke, the performance in Bydgoszcz epitomised the teenager’s spirit.
“His heart is the quality that makes Getnet a terrific athlete,” he explains. “The kid is as tough as nails in a race. He fell twice in the water (at the 2016 World U20 Championships) but still finished on the medal podium and was very close to silver in a dramatic finish.”
He made more progress in 2017, winning the Ethiopian World Championship Trials in Hengelo in a national U20 record of 8:12.28 before going on to finish ninth in the World Championships final in London at the age of just 17.
In 2018 he returned for a second crack at the World U20 Championships in Finland. However, he defied the advice of his coach to hit the front with two laps to go and ran out of gas on the final lap, eventually settling for bronze as his compatriot Takele Nigate took a surprise gold courtesy of a massive PB.
Determined to come out firing for the 2019 season, Wale reapplied himself to the demands of running 100-120km a week. Fitting in two to three track sessions per week, as well as one session over the barriers, Wale also gained additional motivation from training with Girma.
“We both are friends and live together in the academy,” he explains. “He is also an aggressive athlete during training and this helps both of us improve. Most of the time we cook together and eat together at the academy.”
Feeling the benefit of a sustained and quality training period, in early 2019 he claimed encouraging top-three cross country finishes in Le Mans and at the historic Cinque Mulini race in Italy.
He entered the track season in the form of his life and scalped more than five-and-a-half seconds from his PB to set an Ethiopian U20 steeplechase record of 8:06.83 in Rome before trimming a further 0.82 from that mark to grab the Ethiopian senior record and his maiden Diamond League victory in Rabat.
“Rabat was completely unforgettable,” he recalls. “I corrected all the tactical mistakes I’d made in other races by using my finishing kick at the right time and after the pacemakers had finished their tasks. I controlled the race and led going into the last lap. I decided to clear the final water jump and managed kick on home.”
A further 0.50 was lopped off his Ethiopian record as he placed third – behind El Bakkali and Benjamin Kigen – in 8:05.51 in Monaco before he claimed silver at the African Games in Rabat.
Yet his performance of the year was delivered at the Diamond League final in Brussels when the teenager produced a tactical masterpiece to courageously control the race from the front and hold off both El Bakkali and Kigen.
“It meant a lot to win,” he says. “It was the first time my country won the Diamond League trophy (in the steeplechase) and this gave me a lot of confidence I can run a sub-eight-minute steeplechase in the future.”
Unfortunately, at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Wale could not deliver on his hopes of a medal and settled for fourth, albeit in a PB of 8:05.21.
Sacrificing a lot to help his team on the penultimate lap, he ran out of steam in the latter stages as his training partner and good friend Girma came agonisingly close to delivering Ethiopian’s maiden world steeplechase title.
It was big lesson learned for Wale. “Sometimes you must have a plan A and a plan B,” he says. “And if one doesn’t work... use the next.”
Wale returned to competition during the indoor season and impressed minus the barriers. He won two out of three 3000m races and finished the year as world leader following his 7:32.80 clocking in Lievin and winner of the World Athletics Indoor Tour.
Encouraged by his form, he was targeting steeplechase gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics until Covid-19 intervened and put his hopes on hold until at least the rescheduled Games next year.
Fully accepting of the decision to postpone the Games, he started life under lockdown training three times a week, but the 19-year-old has more recently stepped that up to five times a week.
“I’m doing my best to keep my fitness to a certain level and I’m hopeful competition will start again soon,” says Wale, who in his downtime likes to return to his home village and help on the family farm with ploughing, digging and harvesting.
However, whatever will happen for the remainder of the 2020 season and beyond, Wale believes the Ethiopian steeplechase challenge is here to stay.
“We are happy and focused and fully motivated on doing our best in the steeplechase,” he says.
Kenya, you have been warned.
Steve Landells for World Athletics