Ethiopian Kalkidan Gezahegne recovers from heat tumble to become youngest ever female champion

 Kalkidan Gezahegne
(L-R) Natalia Rodriguez (Spain) takes silver, Kalkidan Gezahegne (ETH) the gold, and Ethiopia's defending champion Gelete Burka takes the bronze in the Women's 1500m Final (Getty Images)

Ethiopia did take another women’s 1500m title, but the gold didn’t go to defending champion Gelete Burka.

Running with the grit and determination of a seasoned veteran, 18-year-old Kalkidan Gezahegne effortlessly kicked past Burka and Spaniard Natalia Rodriguez to become the youngest woman to ever win a World indoor title.

“I was hesitating to attack after falling down in the heats,” said Gezahegne, whose tumble to the track and brave run to victory was perhaps the major highlight on the opening day of competition. “At the end my finish was enough.”

Her spectacular comeback in the heats already displayed to the world the determination of Gezahegne, who at 18 years and 310 days old, outdid a very familiar name as the youngest ever World indoor champion: Gabriela Szabo of Romania who won her first 3000m title in 1995 when she was 19 years and just under four months old. That was a stat, though, that Gezahegne didn’t think about much at all.

“Thank you for telling me,” she said. “That is an excellent feeling.” An excellent feeling to match a finely executed race.

Kenyan Irene Jelagat took the early lead, controlling the tempo ahead of Burka, European champion Anna Alminova of Russia, Gezahegne and Sylwia Ejdys of Poland. With laps in the 33 to 35-second range, the order didn’t change until 700 metres remained, when Burka made her move for the front.

She was immediately shadowed by her younger compatriot, with Jelagat and Ejdys following single fie just a few strides behind. The boldest move of the race came next when American Erin Donohue, just a 4:12 runner indoors and sitting near the tail end of the 10-woman field, went for broke and made her way to front.

She managed to work her way into second place, but Burka held firm. Donohue couldn’t maintain the rapidly increasing pace for long, and was swallowed up first by Gezahegne, and then Natalia Rodriguez, who took the lead a few steps from the bell. But it wasn’t hers for long.

Burka, who was knocked to the ground and out of contention at last year’s World Championships in Berlin by Rodriguez, retook the lead from the Spaniard as they entered the final turn, with Gezahegne following on the outside. Entering the homestretch it was the teenager who proved stronger, running wide to pass Burka and eventually reach the line in 4:08.14. It was among the slowest performances of the youngster’s career, but certainly the biggest victory.

Rodriguez, who took silver behind Burka in Valencia two years ago, kicked past the Ethiopian over the final 50 metres to successfully defend her silver medal, clocking 4:08.30, 0.09 ahead of Burka.

“I was very tense after Berlin and I really wanted to prove myself,” said Rodriguez, who was disqualified shortly after crossing the line first in Berlin last summer.

Rising Polish star Ejdys was fourth in 4:09.24, while Jelagat just edged Donohue 4:09.57 to 4:09.59, personal bests for both.

But the day belonged to Gezahegne. Perhaps the future, too.

“I’ve been running and training for only three years,” said Gezahegne, who ran to World junior silver in the event in 2008 and reached the final in Berlin last summer. “And already being a World champion is very special. But my career is just beginning.”

Bob Ramsak for IAAF