When Ouassim Oumaiz lines up in the senior men’s race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Lisbon on 8 December, there is a very good chance he will be the youngest competitor on the start line. But this is no reason to discount his medal prospects.
Oumaiz only turned 20 in March but in the wake of his outstanding performances in early season Spanish cross country races, he has publicly advertised his ambitious decision to forego the U23 race next month, where a tantalising head-to-head with France’s two-time reigning champion Jimmy Gressier would have beckoned, in favour of facing the seniors who will race over a distance of 10.2km.
Oumaiz showed a glimpse of his vast potential at last year’s SPAR European Cross Country Championships. He kept pace with Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen in the U20 race until the last lap when the European 1500m and 5000m champion cut loose from the Spaniard to win his third successive title by a solid margin of nine seconds.
“He is too strong,” acknowledged Oumaiz in his post-race interview with European Athletics. “But in time and with training, I think I can beat him.”
Oumaiz certainly talks a good game but his performances since then have demonstrated this is more than youthful bravado.
He won the senior title at the Spanish Cross Country Championships in Caceres in March this year before making a quiet impact on his senior debut at the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, placing a notable 20th on the day of his 20th birthday and finishing ahead of all but one of his European counterparts.
An anticipated breakthrough on the track didn’t come to fruition as Oumaiz was frustratingly sidelined by a stress fracture in his sacrum but the youngster caused a stir both domestically and internationally in his first race in seven months, winning the prestigious Cross Internacional de Atapuerca at the start of this month by two seconds.
This win came in less than straightforward circumstances as Oumaiz fell on the penultimate lap, losing 30 metres on the lead group which included four top-10 finishers from Aarhus. Oumaiz closed the gap economically before striking out in the latter stages to become the first Spanish winner in eleven years, handsomely surpassing his initial pre-race expectations.
“The initial objective was to be among the leading Spaniards but on the starting line - after so many months without being able to compete - I thought it was possible to fight for everything,” Oumaiz told Spanish sports daily Marca after the race.
“When I fell and saw that I was able to get back in contention with the leading group, I realised the race was already mine because I felt very comfortable and fresh at the pace they were setting.”
Oumaiz couldn’t quite reproduce the same form the following weekend in Soria but he still placed a credible fourth, only twelve seconds behind the winner and a long way ahead of his Spanish compatriots who will be counting on Oumaiz to deliver a big performance in the context of an assault on the team title in Lisbon.
Oumaiz was born to Moroccan parents in the town of Nerja on the Costa del Sol in 1999. His father Abderrahim was a national-level distance runner in Morocco and he also coached his son during his formative years in athletics.
But Oumaiz left the family home in September 2017 to further his career, taking the daunting step of moving more than 400 kilometres north to Madrid to train under the instructions of the respected coach Antonio Serrano – the bronze medallist in the senior men’s race at the inaugural European Cross Country Championships in 1994 – whose stable also includes Adel Mechaal and Javier Guerra, both of whom were part of the Spanish team in Tilburg last December which greatly benefitted him.
“I really like his group because there is a very good feeling among everyone,” Oumaiz told the Spanish federation website. “I also have Adel as a partner training, who is a great inspiration for me, as is Javi Guerra. Being accompanied by the two of them in Tilburg was like being with my father and my mother!”
The silver medal in Tilburg was proof this training environment is paying dividends for Oumaiz although Serrano did gently admonish his charge for his distracting mid-race antics which were captured by the cameras and made some traction on social media, albeit not quite to the same extent as Gressier’s famously unsuccessful attempt at a knee slide through the tape at the finish line.
“Last summer, when I watched Mechaal in the 5000m at the European Championships in Berlin, I saw how Henrik did it with his brother Jakob [referring to their mid-race high five] and I thought: ‘If I have the chance in the future, I will do it to him.’ I recognise I also did it to try to lower his morale a little so that he would think: ‘he is strong’. Anyway, Antonio talked to me and told me that these gestures should not be made so they will not be repeated,” said Oumaiz.
His performances in Atapuerca and Soria have demonstrated Oumaiz has developed in maturity, ability and experience since that breakout performance in Tilburg and the 20-year-old has aspirations beyond the cross country season as well.
While recovering from his stress fracture, Oumaiz watched the 5000m at the World Athletics Championships in Doha unfold on television without any Spanish representation across the heats but Oumaiz is keen to ensure there will be at least one Spanish vest on the start line in Tokyo.
"I am capable of doing the Olympic qualifying standard of 13:13.50,” he said. “I really want to make up for last year on the track to see what I am truly worth.”
2016 - European Athletics U18 Championships, seventh (3000m)
2017 - SPAR European Cross Country Championships, 23rd (U20 race)
2018 - Great Edinburgh International XCountry, 2nd (U20 race)
2018 - Spanish Cross Country Championships, 1st (U20 race)
2018 - Spanish Indoor U20 Championships, 1st (1500m)
2018 - Spanish U20 Championships, 2nd (1500m)
2018 - SPAR European Cross Country Championships, 2nd (U20 race)
2019 - Spanish Cross Country Championships, 1st (senior race)
2019 - World Cross Country Championships, 20th (senior race)
2019 - Cross Internacional de Atapuerca, 1st (senior race)
2019 - Cross Internacional de Soria, 1st (senior race)
800m 1:53.43 (2018)
1500m 3:44.52 (2018)
3000m 8:12.15 (2018)
5000m 14:56.19 (2017)