The defending double-Olympic champion takes another step toward the London Games.
Tirunesh Dibaba was destined to be one of the world’s greatest distance runners. Her first name means “you are good” in Amharic–the official language of Ethiopia–while her last name translates to “blossomed”.
The 26-year-old, who as a teenager was considered too young and too frail to withstand the physical rigors of track, has certainly blossomed as an athlete in the past 10 years. Dibaba won Olympic gold medals at 5,000 and 10,000 meters in 2008 and took bronze at the Games in the 5,000 in 2004. She won world championship gold in the 5,000 in 2003 and 2005, and also captured world championship gold in the 10,000 in 2005 and 2007. Off the track, she’s won five world cross country championships.
Anyone who is too frail could not accomplish so much. Dibaba obviously defied the odds.
On Sunday, Dibaba will take another step in her bid to repeat as a double Olympic champion, leading a strong international women’s field at the Carlsbad 5000. This will be her fourth Carlsbad race, and like in most of her other competitions, she has had good success there. She made her Carlsbad debut in 2002 as a 16-year-old and finished an impressive second to Deena Kastor’s then world record of 14:54. A year later, she placed third when Berhane Adere equaled Kastor’s world mark. In 2005, Dibaba finally won at Carlsbad, breaking the tape in 14:51 and matching Paula Radcliffe’s then world road record.
Dibaba’s mark was the 15th world record broken or tied at Carlsbad since its inception in 1985. The total now is 16, including Ethiopian Meseret Defar’s current world record of 14:46 there in 2006, along with eight U.S. records, and numerous national and age-group marks. That’s why Carlsbad is known as the “World’s Fastest 5K.”
Despite the presence of Aheza Kiros of Ethiopia, the defending champion who also won in 2009 (she was runner-up in 2010), and other strong international racers, Dibaba is an overwhelming favorite in Sunday’s race.
“There are four or five women who can challenge Dibaba,” said Matt Turnbull, elite athlete coordinator for the Competitor Group, “but if she’s at the top of her game, she’ll be tough to beat. She’s always tough to beat.”
Getting Dibaba to return to Carlsbad was a terrific coup for Turnbull.
“The pinnacle of the sport is to get the Olympic champion to come to your race,” he said. “She’s the undisputed No. 1. It’s a great feather in our cap to get her to come to our race. She’s a true global champion. Over the years, she’s been busy winning all those medals. But she had an injury-ravaged year last year. There were plenty of other places she could have gone this time. It’s a 36-hour ride (from Ethiopia) for her for a 5K race. She could have gone elsewhere.”
Dibaba is just as pleased to be back at Carlsbad.
“This is a very important year for me as I prepare to defend my Olympic 5,000- and 10,000-meter titles,” she said. “I’m very excited to be returning to Carlsbad this year as I build up to London 2012. I have great memories of racing there. It was one of my first races outside of Ethiopia back in 2002. Carlsbad has had many great champions and I’m proud of my win there. I’m so happy to return as an Olympic champion and world record-holder and I will try my best to win another title. After a tough 2011 wirth injuries and setbacks, it’s been great to get back to racing. I’m happy to be back in track again. Carlsbad is perfect for my next step back.”
In addition to Kiros, the women’s field includes Kenya’s Mercy Cherono, a 20-year-old who was the gold medalist at the 2011 African Cross Country Championships; Ethiopia’s Meselech Melkamu, the silver medalist at the 2009 World Championships over 10,000 meters; and Ethiopia’s Werknesh Kidane, who was third at Carlsbad in 2002 and has five bronze medals from the World Cross Country Championships.
As impressive as this gathered field of women is, Tirunesh Dibaba is good, and she will be hard to beat.