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Mohammed Aman has smashed the stereotype. Well, sort of...
Hailing from the land of long distance greats Abebe Bikila, Miruts Yifter, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba, the slender but swift Mohammed Aman has proved Ethiopians can be equally as gifted over the two-lap distance.
A three-time world champion (two indoor and one outdoor), national record holder and the ninth quickest man in history for the 800m, the 21-year-old appears set for a career which could go on to match the very best of Ethiopian athletics royalty.
Yet Aman admits it took his compatriots some convincing.
“Everyone from my father to my old coach used to say ‘why waste your time running the 800m when you can run the 5km or 10km?’ but I always believed in myself, that I could make it in the 800m,” he explains.
Then again Aman’s story has always been a little different. Unlike many of his fellow East African runners he grew up in a town – Asella – only ten minutes walk not a lengthy run) from school and both his parents were not farmers but teachers.
Aman and Nijel Amos have provided spectators with some of the most spectacular head-to-head finishes of 2015
A fleet-footed striker on the football pitch in his youth – “no-one could catch me on the football field” – his interest in athletics was first piqued after his pals registered for an under-15 athletics programme. Aman, a keen follower of Premier League giants Arsenal (coincidentally like rival David Rudisha) and FC Barcelona, was curious to test his credentials and he too signed up aged “12 or 13”.
The programme gave the youngster the chance to run every distance from the 100m to 1500m. He discovered an ability to run the 1500m, but with eye-catching speed in the 200m and 400m, he found 800m was his optimum distance.
National titles quickly followed and in 2010 he secured a first major international success, takingYouth Olympic Games gold over 1000m in Singapore. Buoyed by his success in south east Asia, he launched into training “every morning and afternoon, never taking a rest” and made staggering progress in 2011, demolishing his 800m personal best by a total of more than five seconds.
That “breakthrough” year as he describes it, Aman secured a silver medal at the World Youth Championships, placed eighth in the final of the Daegu world championships and posted an eye-popping national record and world youth record time of 1:43.37 in Rieti.
“I said to myself, nothing is impossible,” Aman recalls.
Training as part of the national middle-distance group under the coaching of Nigussie Gechamo, the success continued to flow when at the tender age of 18 he unleashed his trademark finishing kick to secure Ethiopia’s first ever global championship 800m gold at the 2012 World Indoor Championships in Istanbul.
Never one to lack confidence, he said “when I flew from Ethiopia to London [for the Olympic Games] I said to myself ‘I want to win gold for my country’.” His confidence did not appear misplaced as he qualified fastest for the final.
But in the greatest 800m race in history – in which David Rudisha struck gold with a stunning world record of 1:40.90 and five men running sub-1:43 – Aman finished back in sixth. He did earn the consolation of a national record time of 1:43.20, but was nonetheless “disappointed.”
Aman qualified for the Olympic final as the fastest, but had to settle for sixth when it mattered
“I didn’t accept it, because I was in good condition,” he explains. “When I went home I cried. Then I said to myself ‘I have to beat these athletes, there are races to come in Stockholm and Zurich’.”
Competing with an added motivation and hunger, Aman returned to winning ways in Stockholm before defeating four of his fellow London Olympic finalists in Zurich – including Rudisha. He crossed the line in a national record 1:42.53 to end the Kenyan’s 34-race (including heats) unbeaten streak and prove to himself and the world that even the world record holder was not invincible.
“I know the secret to beating Rudisha,” Aman tells SPIKES with a smile. “If I train hard and I believe in myself, nothing is impossible. Rudisha has two legs, I have two legs, so why not?”
Aman took the confidence gained from his end of season form to produce a Rudisha-like season of dominance in 2013. The Ethiopian won ten out of eleven 800m finals (his only defeat to Rudisha came at the Doha Diamond League) and struck gold at the Moscow world championships.
Aged just 19 at the time, Aman had become not only the youngest winner of a world outdoor 800m title, but also the youngest medallist and he describes the moment as “life changing”.
The financial rewards allowed him to buy a new house, a new car (a Toyota Yaris, since you ask) and some land to build some houses as a new business venture.
His 2013 world championship gold paid for a new house, some land and a Toyota Yaris
In March 2014, he retained his world indoor title in Sopot. But in the sport of athletics things never did run smooth; a hamstring injury hampered his outdoor season and he had to play second fiddle to Botswana’s Nijel Amos in several key races.
The disappointment prompted a change. He had met Oregon Track Club Elite head coach Mark Rowland at the 2013 World Championships and had been impressed by his approach to the sport. In February this year he took the bold move of uprooting himself from Ethiopia to the US to join the Eugene-based club.
“It has not been an easy adjustment because life in America is so different. I had to learn to cook for myself in the USA because my sisters used to do it. But the training partners I have are familiar, they have helped me settle,” says Aman, who likes to cook barbecues and burgers.
He has also embraced American sport and become a huge fan of American football and basketball. Most importantly, though, he insists he has become a better athlete under Rowland’s guidance.
“He reads my body so well,” he says. “He knows how to train me to become a champion. I’m very happy to train with him.”
That kick, though...
This year – apart from a baffling ninth place finish in Doha explained in part by a hectic travel schedule – Diamond League wins in his adopted home city of Eugene and Rome have refuelled his belief that he can become only the third athlete in history to retain a world outdoor 800m title in Beijing, joining the legendary names of Billy Konchellah and Wilson Kipkete.
Which begs on final question: just what is that ‘secret’ to beating Rudisha?
“When David is retired, I will tell you,” he says with a smile.
Since that’s is far down the line, for now the goal remains simple: to further ram home the point that Ethiopians can run the 800m.