Sifan Hassan, already an Olympic legend on the track, spent early Sunday morning in London crying and vomiting at the prospect of running 26.2 miles on the roads. By midday, she had not just accomplished her goal of finishing her first marathon, but she won it.
Since, Hassan has been highlighted on news programs and front pages around the world. The track star who said publicly that she was scared of the marathon, signed up anyway and won despite stopping multiple times to stretch her left leg (that she forgot to tape up that morning) and nearly getting run over by a motorbike in a dash to a drinks table late in the race.
Hassan had not practiced grabbing water bottles on long runs in the last month of her training, because she was observing Ramadan, which calls for abstaining from food and water from dawn until dusk.
The logical follow-up question: what’s next?
“We have to keep her focused on one thing at a time, but that’s impossible with her,” her American coach, Tim Rowberry, told Dutch broadcaster NOS while Hassan did the press rounds on Sunday. “Whatever makes her excited, I try to help her chase after that and try to balance everything at once.”
Rowberry said that, before Sunday’s race, he and Hassan discussed a man who ran the 5000m, 10,000m and marathon at one Olympics.
Rowberry couldn’t remember the athlete’s name off the top of his head, but he was presumably referring to Emil Zátopek, the Czech who won the 5000m, 10,000m and marathon in an eight-day stretch at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
Sixteen others ran those three distances at one Olympics (all men and the last in 1984), according to Bill Mallon of Olympedia.org, but Zátopek remains the lone one to earn a medal in all three at one Games, the three longest running events on the program.
The 2024 Paris Olympic schedule:
Aug. 2: 5000m heats
Aug. 5: 5000m final
Aug. 6: 1500m heats
Aug. 8: 1500m semifinals
Aug. 9: 10,000m final
Aug. 10: 1500m final
Aug. 11: Marathon
“I guess that’s what’s important is that we think that’s possible to do 5K, 10K, marathon, but she loves the 1500m, she loves other races, and I don’t see her trying to give that up, either,” said Rowberry, who once sang with the Smashing Pumpkins on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. “So it’s going to be a really big question, and we might make it the same as Tokyo where we have to make a decision at the last moment.”
Two years ago, Hassan waited until after her first race of the Tokyo Olympics — a 5000m heat — to publicly say that she planned to contest the 1500, 5000m and 10,000m at those Games.
“For me it is crucial to follow my heart,” she said in a press release announcing that decision. “Doing that is far more important than gold medals.”
Over nine days in Tokyo, Hassan raced six times combining heats and finals, totaling 24,500 meters (just over 15 miles).
She won the 5000m and 10,000m and in between took bronze in the 1500m, becoming the second woman to earn a medal in three individual track races at one Olympics. The other was also a Dutchwoman: Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won the 100m, 200m and the 80m hurdles in 1948.
Hassan also pulled off an unprecedented feat in 2019. She became the first person to win the 1500m and the 10,000m at one world championships. The 1500m and the 5000m overlapped, and she chose the shorter distance, which created the unique double.
The month after those worlds, she finished second in a half marathon.
Hassan, born in Ethiopia, came to the Netherlands as a 15-year-old refugee in 2008. She has preferred not to speak about her childhood in Ethiopia.
She joined a local running club to meet people in her new country, though she had little experience with the sport, and began signing up for local races. An early coach said she “was not anything special” until 2013, the year she obtained Dutch citizenship. By 2014, she was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 1500m.
Now 30 years old, Hassan has become one of the greatest distance runners in history, and arguably the most versatile at the highest level.
She plans to return to the track for August’s world championships in Budapest. Rowberry said that Hassan will definitely run at least one track race at the 2024 Paris Olympics. Beyond that, he couldn’t predict.
“I love the marathon. I love the track also,” Hassan said Sunday afternoon. “I want to be everywhere.”
She did not mention Zátopek or chasing any more history in 2024. She was satisfied having accomplished her goal on that day: running 26.2 miles.
“I don’t need to become the greatest,” she said. “I’m fine the way I am.”
NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.
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