Lemecha’s one-year journey from unknown to global medalist


Couple of years before few people in the athletics world had heard of Lemecha Girma.
Lemecha had joined the Tirunesh Dibaba Athletics Club a year or two earlier and was training for the 1500m, but club coach Kefyalew Alemu noticed Lemecha’s height and long stride and suggested he might be good at the steeplechase.
His 8:46.23 run at the Ethiopian U20 Championships was respectable but unremarkable. Getnet Wale and Takele Negate, who finished first and second in that race in 8:35.01 and 8:35.53 respectively, went on to represent Ethiopia at the World U20 Championships in Tampere later that year and both made it on to the podium. Negate took the gold medal, ending a Kenyan winning streak that dated back to the first edition of the World U20 Championships, while Wale earned bronze.
After decades of Kenyan steeplechase dominance, Ethiopian runners were finally starting to make an impact in the steeplechase. But still, no one knew of Lemecha Girma. Lemecha moved to the Youth Sport Academy in Addis Ababa to be coached by Teshome Kebede, the national coach for the steeplechase, and to train alongside Wale and a couple of other promising middle-distance runners.
International debut
Lemecha’s first appearance in an overseas invitational came in the Diamond League meeting in Paris, where he was up against a field of global medalists, including world and Olympic champion Conseslus Kipruto.
If Lemecha was nervous, he did a good job of hiding it. After staying in third or fourth place for most of the first half of the race, he moved into the lead once the pacemaker dropped out at 2000m. The top contenders moved past Lemecha as the bell sounded for the final lap, but Lemecha wasn’t finished and briefly regained the lead with 200 meters to go.
He was eventually out-kicked by Soufiane El Bakkali and Benjamin Kigen in the closing stages, but Lemecha’s third-place finish in 8:08.63 was a noteworthy Diamond League debut and showed that his Hengelo performance wasn’t a fluke.
Two weeks later at the Diamond League final in Brussels, Lemecha again placed third, this time in a PB of 8:07.66 and finishing even closer to the winner. It was a confidence-boosting performance ahead of the World Championships.
Silver lining
Despite his promising results in Paris and Brussels, Lemecha tried to keep his expectations low in Doha.
“It was my first race at the World Championships, so I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “I had trained hard for a good result, but I didn’t expect to win.”
He passed his first test with flying colors, winning his heat in 8:16.64. He may have been a novice, and a promising one at that, but Lemecha knew that the final would be the toughest challenge of his young career.
Kipruto, who had missed most of the season through injury, was rounding into form at the right time. A formidable championship performer with vast experience, the Kenyan was desperate to retain his title. 14 other men in the field would be vying for medals too.
Lemecha’s teammate Chala Beyo was the early leader before Wale, Lemecha’s training partner, took up the running and led the field through 1000m in a swift 2:39.55. Lemecha then took up the pace and led through 2000m in 5:22.95 with Wale, Kipruto, Abraham Kibiwot and El Bakkali for company, all of them looking comfortable.
El Bakkali moved into the lead at the bell, but Lemecha kicked to the front with 200 meters remaining. Kipruto then moved past the Moroccan into second place and in pursuit of Lemecha. The two men flew over the final barrier with Lemecha still managing to hold a slight advantage over the Olympic champion, but Kipruto was gaining on the young Ethiopian with every step.
They crossed the line almost in unison, both unsure of the outcome as they waited nervously for the times to come up on the screen. Finally it was confirmed: Kipruto had successfully defended his title in 8:01.35. In the closest ever finish in the steeplechase at the World Championships; Lemecha took the silver medal in a senior Ethiopian record of 8:01.36.
Known quantity
Now a world silver medalist, Lemecha is no longer an underdog.
He was shortlisted for the Rising Star award at last year’s World Athletics Awards in Monaco, an honor that compatriot Selemon Barega won. But Lemecha went on to win the Young Athlete of the Year award from the Confederation of African Athletics. He finished second at the Campaccio cross-country meeting in Italy last month, his first international cross-country race, beating world 5km record-holder Robert Keter.
And while the rising standards of Ethiopian steeple chasing means no place on the national team is secure until after the trials, Lemecha hopes to book his place on the team for the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games where he will aim to become the first Ethiopian athlete to win an Olympic steeplechase title.
“Now I am going to work very hard to be stronger and to try to win an Olympic gold for my country.”