Of all the athletes who were crowned champions at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018, 1500m winner Samuel Tefera was one of the least known at the start of that year.
But instead of building on his indoor triumph, Tefera endured a frustrating outdoor campaign that was hampered by illness, winning just one of his seven races and finishing outside of the medals at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018 and the African Championships.
“My form dropped a little bit,” he said at the IAAF Athletics Awards in December. “But I have been training hard and I want to be satisfied with 2019.”
Back on the boards, he started this year by clocking a world-leading PB of 3:35.57 to win at the IAAF World Indoor Tour meeting in Torun. He followed it four days later with a comfortable 3:36.72 victory in Lievin. But despite those marks, the bulk of the attention in Birmingham was on fellow Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha, who had announced his intentions to break the world indoor 1500m record.
Tefera wanted a piece of the action, though, and wasn’t simply going to be a spectator.
While Kejelcha tracked the pacemakers during the early laps, Tefera was tucked in close behind and bided his time before kicking for home. He overtook Kejelcha with less than 100 metres remaining and ran hard to the line, crossing it in a world indoor record of 3:31.04* to improve Hicham El Guerrouj’s mark by 0.14.
“I can’t believe that,” said the 19-year-old. “I’m delighted with the outcome and to have the world record is a special feeling.”
El Guerrouj later congratulated Tefera. “I am very proud and happy to have held the world indoor 1500m record for 22 years,” said the Moroccan. “I would like to congratulate Samuel Tefera for his excellent race and wish him good luck for the rest of his career.”
While Tefera faces a long season – one that will hopefully culminate with the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 – he has already showed that his world indoor triumph was no fluke and that he can be a factor in any kind of race.
*Subject to the usual ratification procedures
Born: 23 October 1999. Coach: Birhanu Mekonne.
Samuel Tefera wasn’t born into a sporting family. But, growing up in Ambo town in the Oromia region of Ethiopia – the area that produced the likes of New York Marathon champion Lelisa Desisa and London Marathon runner-up Shura Kitata – he never had to look too far to find running inspiration.
After finishing second in a race against older students at school, Tefera caught the running bug and soon won regional titles at 1500m. He also quickly became a student of the sport and was inspired by the feats of Kenenisa Bekele.
He entered the 1500m at the Ethiopian Championships in 2017 and finished a close second to world U20 silver medallist Taresa Tolosa. A couple of weeks later in Hengelo, Tefera won the Ethiopian World Championships trial race, clocking a PB of 3:33.78 to book his spot on the national team for the IAAF World Championships London 2017.
Still aged just 17 and having never competed in any kind of international championships, Tefera exited the heats at the World Championships. But after a solid spell of training in the off-season, he emerged at the start of 2018 in sensational form.
He won all of his indoor races, culminating with his victory at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham. Outdoors, he went on to win the national 1500m title in a championship record of 3:36.1 and then clocked a PB of 3:31.63 at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai.
Hampered by illness and clearly not at his best, he finished fifth at the World U20 Championships and 10th at the African Championships. Tefera knew he had more to give, though, and he returned in 2019 in the form of his life.
Indoor wins in Torun and Lievin were followed by his world indoor 1500m record run in Birmingham, breaking a mark that was set two years before Tefera was born.
Still aged just 19, Tefera likely hasn’t reached his peak yet.
Tafera’s progression at 1500m
2016: 3:43.0 Addis Ababa
2017: 3:33.78 Hengelo
2018: 3:31.63 Shanghai / 3:36.05i Val-de-Reuil
2019: 3:31.04i Birmingham
World indoor 1500m record progression
3:36.03 Jose-Luis Gonzalez (ESP) Oviedo, 1986
3:35.6 Marcus O’Sullivan (IRL) East Rutherford, 1989
3:34.20 Peter Elliott (GBR) Seville, 1990
3:34.16 Noureddine Morceli (ALG) Seville, 1991
3:31.18 Hicham El Guerrouj (MAR) Stuttgart, 1997
3:31.04 Samuel Tefera (ETH) Birmingham, 2019