Anyone who witnessed Abeba Aregawi’s imperious 1500m victory at this year’s IAAF World Indoor Championships would be forgiven for assuming the Swedish star would be a shoo-in for gold at the European Athletics Championships in Zurich.
It was the Ethiopian-born runner’s third commanding victory for her adopted country at three major championships in the space of 12 months, a sequence that seemed set to run and run in Zurich’s iconic Letizigrund Stadium.
Unlike many Ethiopians, Aregawi came late to athletics. Born and raised in Adigrat, a small village in the north of the country, she didn’t run her first race until she was 16.
After some success, she moved to Addis Ababa where she could train and compete for a local club while carrying on with her studies. It was there she met her husband, Henok Weldegebriel, an Ethiopian who had been based in Sweden since 2002, and she followed him there in 2009 when they married.
She became a Swedish citizen herself in June 2012, although she ran for Ethiopia at the London 2012 Olympic Games where, despite blistering form in the run-up to the final, she could only finish fifth and nearly fell in the final few metres of the race.
“I had trained very well to win there but it was basically a technical error,” she explained.
Cleared to compete for Sweden that December, she swiftly set about revising the Scandinavian nation’s record books – first indoors, at the XL-Galan meeting in Stockholm in February 2013 when she ran 3:58.40, and then at the opening Diamond League meeting of the outdoor season in Doha she clocked 3:56.60.
In between, Aregawi delighted the home crowd in Gothenburg by winning her first title in her new blue and yellow vest at the European Athletics Indoor Championships.
Last August, she travelled to Moscow as favourite for the world 1500m title, and continued her winning habit there, remaining unbeaten defeating USA’s Jenny Simpson in typically dominant style in the final, her lessons well-learned from London 12 months earlier.
“I corrected those mistakes and was able to win here,” reflected Aregawi. “After my failure at the Olympics, I worked specifically on the final 400m and on improving my finish. The race suited me perfectly.”
It was a historic performance, not just for Aregawi, but for her new country too, for she became the first Swede to win a middle distance medal, and only the fourth Swedish woman to win a world title, joining high jumper Kajsa Bergqvist, 100m hurdler Lyudmila Engqvist and heptathlete Carolina Kluft.
She started 2014 in the same barrier-breaking form, running a European indoor record of 3:57.91 in Stockholm before extending her unbeaten series to 15 races in Sopot.
The pattern seemed set to repeat when she set a world lead winning the first Diamond League race of the summer season in Shanghai. A few yards back, however, there was a lurking threat to her continental dominance in the shape of 21-year-old Sifan Hassan who broke the Dutch under-23 record to finish third behind Simpson.
Hassan, like Aregawi, is a former Ethiopian and the two are good friends who share a manager and sometimes warm up together. Both had good reason to be pleased with their performances that night.
But Aregawi’s winning sequence was about to come to an end, first in Eugene where she was beaten into second by Kenya’s Helen Obiri in a super-fast race with Hasan, in fifth, adding the Dutch senior and European under-23 marks to her increasingly impressive tally.
The next time they raced, in Paris on 5 July, it was Hassan who came out on top, clocking 3:57.00 to lower her records still further, while Aregawi endured one of the worst defeats of her career, finishing a laboured 10th as the first five women broke four minutes.
Six days later in Glasgow Hassan won again, but this time Aregawi was right on her heels as the pair battled tooth and nail over the final lap before the Dutch woman edged ahead in the last two strides to take victory by less than three tenths of a second. It was a thrilling race.
“I’m in top condition now and I’m looking forward to the European Championships,” said Hassan afterwards. “I want to win gold there. I think it will be a tactical race and I prefer that. I’m going there to win.”
Aregawi wants to win too. It’s what she does when she wears the Swedish vest. Stand by for one of the battles of the week.