Sofia Assefa did not make her way into the Ethiopian athletics arena not seeing the outstanding successes of the country’s stars, such as Haile Gebreselassie, Derartu Tulu, Kenenisa Bekele and Meseret Defar. But she had a talent which saw her strive for success and stick with a discipline that she initially detested.
Assefa's athletics career started in 2003, when she showed her speed in the sprints at the Adjibar high school competition in her home district of Tenta, in the vicinity of Dessie, the capital of South Wollo. She won the100m and 200m and was able to take part in the Tenta district schools competition.
In this competition, though, Assefa’s coaches shifted her to the 5000m. And, much to the surprise of her team and spectators, she stormed to a victory. "My happiness goes beyond its border and I felt something different,” Assefa said, remembering the occasion vividly. “I just want to continue winning without seeing or thinking of the great stars of the country.”
The 2004 Amhara regional competition then followed in the historical city of Gondar, some 750km from the capital, Addis Ababa. Assefa took gold in the 5000m, making South Wollo proud. This led to her first run in the Addis Ababa Stadium during the 2005 Ethiopian Championships, but it did not go well.
"It was not very good at all,” Assefa recalled. “I was lapped by many athletes. I can’t remember the result. Perhaps I was one of the leaders from the back.”
The result persuaded Assefa to take a serious decision – to turn away from her home town in Tenta and quit her school at grade nine. She wanted to take her chance in Addis Ababa by living with her cousin Ibrahim Hussein (not to be confused with Kenyan Ibrahim Hussein, the former Boston and New York Marathon winner).
When Assefa left for Addis, she did not know to what it might lead and she had no promise from any big club - she had only the strong desire to be a good athlete. And her talent and desire were a means for her to train with athletes in one of the leading athletics clubs, Ethiopian Bank.
However, the club had no space for a new athlete at 5000 or 10,000m. Instead, she faced a dilemma posed by the Ethiopian Bank club, which asked her to run the 3000m Steeplechase at the 2006 Ethiopian Championships.
"It was a discipline I hated to the extent of not wanting to hear about it,” Assefa recalled. “It took time to think over it and, only for the sake of the club, I decided to run.’’
After three days’ training - two at Addis Ababa University and one on the Addis Ababa Stadium - Assefa took bronze to the surprise of everybody acquainted with her. “The result was beyond my expectation,” she said. “I fell in love with the discipline that day and declined options in other distances.’’
Following that achievement, Assefa was enrolled in the Ethiopian Bank club. Training at the club under coach Kassu Alemayehu has been fruitful for Assefa, who first raced outside Ethiopia that summer, competing three times in Spain with a best result of 10:17.48 in Bilbao.
In 2007, Assefa was in Europe for a much longer period, running five times in her discipline as well as over other distances. At the Steeplechase, she ran consistently below 10 minutes in each race, posting victories in Karlskrona (9:56.94 on 18 June) and Bilbao (9:54.15 on 23 June) and culminating with a personal best of 9:48.46 in Heusden (28 July).
Despite her improvement, however, that race brought mixed feelings. In fact, Assefa had tried in many races abroad to run her way into the Ethiopian team for the World Championships, to be held in Osaka, by securing the third spot, but this was not to be. "It was a heart-draining struggle,” she recalled. “Finally, I ran 9:48 and felt very happy but I was unfortunate because Zemzem Ahmed ran 9:45 (just ahead of her in the same race) and sealed the last position.”
Assefa continued to make excellent progress in 2008, and was selected to the Ethiopian team that registered a remarkable achievement during the 16th African Championships, in Addis Ababa.
Even though she was not lucky enough to win a medal, registering 4th place, she contributed much towards the team achievement as compatriots Zemzem Ahmed and, Mekdes Bekele grabbed gold and silver in the 3000m Steeplechase, restricting the Kenyans to the bronze medal secured by Ruth Bosibori Nyangau.
Assefa again raced in Europe in the summer, improving her PB to 9:31.58 in Athens (13 July) in her run-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing.
However, in Beijing Assefa did not run up to her expectations as she finished 8th (9:47.02) in her heat and failed to progress to the final. With two laps to go, she misjudged a jump and lost valuable ground. “The technical mistake I made at the barrier cost me a good result,” she said.
In 2009, Assefa continued her steady progress, placing 3rd at the Super Grand Prix meeting in Doha (9:37.96) and was selected for the World Championships, to be held in Berlin, after recording a personal best of 9:19.91 at the Golden League meeting in Oslo, where she finished second behind Bosibori Nyangau (9:18.65).
She also placed 4th in the Rome Golden League (9:23. 61) and 2nd in Heusden (9:22.23)
For Assefa, being part of Ethiopian team for Berlin represented a marked contrast to her failed campaign for the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, but her maiden appearance at the World Championships was not to be successful.
After easily qualifying (3rd in her heat in 9:22.63), Assefa could not keep the same pace in the final, and closed a disappointing 13th in 9:31.29.
She partially made up for her Berlin counter-performance by finishing 4th in 9:26.10 at the World Athletics Final in Thessaloniki, Greece.
At the end of the year, on 22 November, she tested how she could feel in road race by running 10km (33.34) in 2009 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In 2010, the 22 year old Assefa showed consistent results to depict what one can expect from her in the future. In four outings on the Samsung Diamond League circuit, she never placed below 5th, posting her fastest times in the space of a week in June, first in Oslo where she finished 4th in 9:23.45 before repeating the same ranking in the Rome Golden Gala to cross the line in 9:24.51.
Her 5th (9:31.62) and 3rd (9:30.05) place finishes in Shanghai and in Eugene (Diamond League) should also be given respect considering her limited experience.
This month, Assefa glittered in the Barcelona Athletics meeting, snatching gold from her opponents after crossing the line in 9:26.04.
She is the 7th fastest athlete at the distance this year (as of 12 July.
However, in spite of her consistency, Assefa is not comfortable with her performance this year. “I don’t get myself as powerful as last year. I am trying my best to do well this year but it is not as I wish,” she confessed. Heading to Nairobi for the African Athletics Championships (28 July to 1 August 2010), she was cautiously optimistic. “Even if I don’t get strong as last year, my performance is good and I will try to my best to the extent of my limit in order to be awarded a medal.”
Assefa performed very well in the Kenyan capital and posted a head lifting result. She powered to a silver medal in a time of 9:32.58 and to some extent frustrated the Kenyans, who were motivated to snatch all medals in front of the home crowd. Assefa was only 40 hundredths of a second behind the winner, Milcah Chemos (9:32.18), and well over three seconds ahead of bronze medallist Lydia Rotich.
After Nairobi, in the Stockholm and London stages of the Diamond League, Assefa posted good times (9:22.09 and 9:24.33 respectively) but placed fourth in both events. Surprisingly, in the last Diamond League meeting, in Brussels, she bounced back to gold winning performances with 9:20.72, outclassing the African champion, Milcah Chemos, who couldn’t match Assefa’s speed and retreated to silver position (9:22.34) while another Ethiopian, Almaz Ayana took the bronze medal in a new World Junior record time of 9:22.51.
Her Brussels result brings her to the 7th position (as of 28 August) in the year’s world lists, and is the second fastest mark in her career.
Although Assefa was not initially drawn to the sport by his exploits, Haile Gebrselassie now has a special place in Assefa’s heart. She admires him, saying: "He achieved a lot and he is a man of his word.”
One of five siblings, her prime goal is to run in the 2012 London Olympics.
3000m Steeplechase: 9:19.91 (2009)
2000m Steeplechase: 6:33.49 (2007)
5000m: 15:59.74 (2007)
10km: 33.54 (2009)
3000m Steeplechase: 2006:10:17.48; 2007: 9:48.46; 2008: 9:31.58; 2009: 9:19.91; 2010: 9:20.72
2008 4th African Championships, Addis Ababa
2008 8h2 Olympic Games, Beijing
2009 13th World Championships, Berlin
2009 4th World Athletics Final, Thessaloniki
2010 2nd African Championships Nairobi