Feature25 Sep 2023

Welteji, Hailu and Meshesha lead new generation of Ethiopians to Riga and beyond


Hirut Meshesha, Diribe Welteji and Freweyni Hailu (© Getty Images)

In a year when Faith Kipyegon set three world records on the track – in the 1500m, mile, and the 5000m – it can be easy to overlook other performances.

But close behind the great Kenyan are a cadre of Ethiopian women who, despite not having gripped the event’s attention, have accomplished some remarkable accolades while also displaying superb versatility.

Of the eight fastest women in the world this year at 1500m, five of them are Ethiopian. And three of those – Diribe Welteji, Freweyni Hailu and Hirut Meshesha – have been selected to represent Ethiopia in the road mile at the World Athletics Road Running Championships Riga 23 on 1 October.

Welteji, who earned 1500m silver behind Kipyegon at the World Championships in Budapest this year, began her career as an 800m runner. At her first ever international competition in 2018, Welteji struck gold over 800m at the World U20 Championships in Tampere.

She started to focus on the 1500m in 2021 but was chosen by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation to run the 800m at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22, where she finished fourth, just missing out on a medal.

Athing Mu and Diribe Welteji at theWorld Athletics Championships Oregon22

Athing Mu and Diribe Welteji at theWorld Athletics Championships Oregon22 (© Getty Images)

In 2023, her focus transitioned to the 1500m, and Welteji delightfully snagged a silver medal in Budapest, running 3:55.69, behind Kipyegon. A few weeks later, at the Wanda Diamond League Final in Eugene, she lowered her personal best, finishing second to Kipyegon again, but in a time of 3:53.93.

Just two places behind Welteji, Hailu also ended her 2023 track campaign on a high, clocking a personal best of 3:55.68. Having been selected for just the 5000m at the World Championships – an event she had contested just once before heading to Budapest – Hailu was delighted with her performance in Eugene.

Freweyni Hailu wins the 1500m in the rain in Stockholm

Freweyni Hailu wins the 1500m in the rain in Stockholm (© Thomas Windestam / Diamond League AG)

“All of the training in the past year was with the 1500m in mind,” Hailu said. “That was what I wanted to do at the World Championships. Unfortunately the federation selected me for the 5000m, which is not my strong event (she eventually placed seventh).”

Although she did not have a lot of time to sharpen up for the 1500m in Eugene, she felt as though her earlier training prepared her well for a late-season breakthrough.

Like all the Ethiopians selected for Riga, this will be Hailu’s first road mile, but she isn’t fazed. “I’m not doing anything different and I think the training for the 1500m will set me up well for this race.”

Meshesha, too, is growing into her own in the 1500m. Like Welteji, she started off as an 800m runner before moving up in distance; she earned world U18 bronze over 800m in 2017 and African U18 gold in 2018 before winning at the African Games in 2019.

Hirut Meshesha wins the 1500m in Rabat

Hirut Meshesha wins the 1500m in Rabat (© Diamond League / Matt Quine)

But in 2021, her first year as a senior, she started to test the waters over 1500m and she won her first proper race at the distance at the World Indoor Tour Gold meeting in Madrid. She went on to clock 3:59.43 outdoors that season, reducing it to 3:57.30 in 2022 and then to 3:54.87 earlier this year.

Despite her big PB in her specialist distance, she missed out on making the 1500m final in Budapest. She finished her track season well, though, with sub-four-minute clockings in Brussels and Eugene, and she hopes to end her year on a high in Riga before a potential move up to the 5000m in the near future.

As this will be her first mile and last race at the end of the year, she is mostly taking it to be a benchmark. “This is the first time we’re running this race so the main objective is to just see what I can do,” Meshesha said. “From there we can better adjust and plan for the future, road races and otherwise.”

While Genzebe Dibaba and Gudaf Tsegay have won many medals and broken several records throughout the past decade, the Ethiopian women’s middle distance team was strong at the top but without as much depth.

Now, the depth is growing. Many other Ethiopian women have made breakthroughs in the middle-distances in recent years, including Lemlem Hailu, Birke Haylom, Worknesh Mesele, Tigist Girma.

The three women heading to Riga, meanwhile, have already accomplished a lot in the distance, but are looking for more. It might not be until the indoor or outdoor track seasons. Or it could very well be in their new debut event – the road mile.

Hannah Borenstein for World Athletics

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