Third of six children in a running family, including younger sisters Tirunesh and Genzebe. Tirunesh is reigning 10,000m World Champion, 5000m indoor and outdoor World record holder, and 5000m Olympic bronze medallist. Genzebe is the 2008 World Cross Country junior champion. Their cousin Derartu Tulu is a two-time Olympic 10,000m champion. Another athletic cousin, Bekelu Dibaba, also inspired Ejegayehou and Tirunesh, and they encourage younger brother Dejene (b. 1989), who shows promise.
As a 10-year old in Bekoji, Ejegayehou watched on TV as her cousin Derartu became the first Black African woman to win Olympic gold. But she continued to concentrate on her studies at the Bekoji elementary school (the same school attended by Derartu) until early in 1998, when a physical education teacher spotted her in one of his classes and urged her to run in the inter-school championships. Though she had hardly trained, she won easily and was selected for the Arsi Province team for the 1998 Oromiya Regional Championships. There she won the 8km junior race and caught the eye of selectors from the Oromiya Prisons Sports Club. She joined the club in May 1998.
By August 1999, she had moved to Addis Ababa to live with cousin Bekelu and continue her schooling, which she had stopped after sixth year, but running quickly took over. Less than a year after moving to Addis, she placed 4th at 10,000m in the Ethiopian Championships and attracted the interest of manager Wetmore. The following year, 2001, she ran cross country in Spain and Portugal and road races in North America, seldom finishing out of the top 5, and she represented Ethiopia at the Goodwill Games in Brisbane (6th at 10,000 in 32:24.20).
2002 saw more North American road races with few distinguished results, but a bronze at 5000m (15:56.02) in the African Championships in Tunisia. In 2003 her running moved up a level. She earned a spot on the Ethiopian World Cross team and finished 9th at 4 km in Lausanne. She then clocked an impressive 31:02.72 in the Palo Alto GP for 2nd behind Werknesh Kidane and took 3rdin the Ethiopian Championships 10,000m, earning another World Championships berth. In Paris, however, her PB 31:01.07 was only good for 9th in the greatest women’s 10,000m ever run (finishers 2 through 16 earned best-ever times for place), and family honors went to little sister Tirunesh, who sprinted to gold in the 5000m.
Ejegayehou assuaged her disappointment in the autumn with three gold medals in quick succession: first at the 8th All Africa Games in Abuja, Nigeria, where she won the 10,000m (32:34.54), beating teammate Eyerusalem Kuma; next at the 1st Afro Asian Games in India, where she also won the 10,000m (33:01.12), and then in Japan where she was part of Ethiopia’s winning team in the Chiba Ekiden road relay. She and her sister ended the year with a family 1-2 in the Great Ethiopian Run, Tirunesh crossing the line two seconds in front.
Ejegayehou began her 2004 cross country season with two wins in Spain and was named to both the short- and long-course teams for the World Cross in Bussels. She came away with a 2nd in the long race on the first day behind Australia’s Benita Johnson and an exhausted 10th in the short race the second day. Her track season was focused on Athens, but along the way she lowered her PBs at 5000 and 10,000m to such impressive marks (14:32.74 and 30:43.39) that she was initially selected for both events (though as a reserve in the 10,000m).
As it turned out, when Berhane Adere was dropped from the squad shortly before the Games, Ejegayehou was drafted into the 10,000m and Meseret Defar took her place in the 5000m. The new lineup worked well for Ethiopia as Meseret won gold in the 5000m (Tirunesh taking bronze), while Ejegayehou recorded a new PB (30:24.98) for silver in the 10,000m. She was disappointed not to have won, having shared the lead with her Ethiopian teammates Werknesh and Derartu over the last several laps, but she admits she was caught unawares by the finishing burst of gold medallist Xing Huina of China.
Ejegayehou’ closed out 2004 with a 3rd over 5000m at the IAAF World Athletics Final in Monaco and a share of yet another team title in the Chiba Ekiden.
Her form in 2005 was less than dazzling. In mid-January, she could do no better than 7th in the Edinburgh International cross country, and two weeks later she trailed in 25 seconds behind Tirunesh’s world indoor 5000m record in Boston. She took 3rd in the 4 km at the Ethiopian World Cross trials but only managed 14th at the St. Etienne/St. Galmier World Cross.
Ejegayehu’s best performances over the next few seasons came behind her sister Tirunesh. The sisters ran a 10,000m in Sollentuna, Sweden in June 2005 that turned out to be critical. It convinced Tirunesh, who ran a World leading 30:15.67 for her debut over the distance to contest it at the Helsinki Worlds, and gave Ejegayehou what remains her personal best to this day, 30:18.39 for 2nd place. Tirunesh went on win both events in Helsinki while, overshadowed by that historic accomplishment, but quite a feat in itself, was Ejegayehu’s haul of two bronzes, as part of a clean medal sweep by Ethiopia.
In several top three finishes behind Tirunesh in 2006, she ran a 3000m personal best 8:35.94 in London and season bests of 14:33.52 for 5000m at the Oslo GL and 8:49.59 for 3000m indoors in Birmingham. She qualified for the 2007 World Championships with a 10,000m win in Barakaldo, Spain, but in Osaka, Tirunesh was the only Ethiopian to medal and Ejegayehu finished seventh.
She appears to be back in top form in 2008, starting the year with a 3000m indoor PB of 8:36.59 in Boston in January, and kicking off the outdoor season as part of the Ethiopian 10,000m podium sweep at the African Championships in Addis Ababa before running 31:04.05 in Ostrava in June, placing second behind Tirunesh each time. Tirunesh’s world record 5000m run in Oslo on 6 June gave Ejegayehu a 14:36.78 2008 best in 3rd behind Kenyan Lucy Wangui Kabuu.
In Beijing, Kabuu and her compatriots will look to challenge the Dibaba sisters and Mestawet Tufa, who will work as a team hoping for one or both of the minor medals behind the overwhelming favourite Tirunesh.
5000m: 14:32.74 (2004)
10,000m: 30:18.29 (2005)
5000/10,000: 2001 – 15:32.31/ 32:24.20; 2002 – 15:56.02/-; 2003 – 14:41.67/ 31:01.07; 2004 – 14:32.74/ 30:24.98; 2005 – 14:37.34/30:18.29; 2006 – 14:33.52/- ; 2007 - 14:45.22/31:18.97; 2008 – 14:36.48/31:04.05.
2008 2nd African Championships, 10,000m
2005 3rd World Championships in Athletics, 5,000m
2005 3rd World Championships in Athletics, 10,000m
2004 2nd Olympic Games, 10,000m
2004 2nd World Cross Country Championships, 8K
2003 1st All-Africa Games, 10,000m
2002 3rd African Championships, 10,000m