At the age of 32, Ethiopian distance runner Meseret Defar is already the stuff of legend in the sport of track and eld. Like all elite athletes, though, she yearns for just one more trip to the podium, and Portland just might be that place to do that.
The diminutive Defar, who stands 5-foot-1 and weighs 93 pounds, is planning to compete in the 3,000 meters at the 2016 IAAF World Indoor Championships to be held at the Oregon Convention Center.
“The indoor championships can be a very good test before the Olympics,’’ Defar said. “Also, I have always run in the World Indoor Championships before each of the Olympics.’’
And done quite well, too.
Defar has run in six IAAF World Indoor Championship meets at 3,000 meters and has six medals to show for it – four golds, one silver and one bronze. She won bronze in her first World Indoors in 2003 and claimed silver in her last, in 2012. In between, she stood atop the podium after winning in ’04, ’06, ’08 and ’10.
The experience of running indoors served as a springboard for Defar in her three previous Olympic Games. Primarily a 5000-meter specialist outdoors, she won gold at the Athens Olympics in 2004, bronze in Beijing in 2008 and gold again in London in 2012. Indoors and out, Defar has also set eight world records in her career. She is No. 2 all-time in the indoor 5,000 (14:24.37, 2009) and indoor 3,000 (8:23.72, 2007), with younger countrywoman Genzebe Dibaba having overtaken her in both.
“Yes, I have lots of medals and records,’’ she said. “Now my plan is if I’m healthy, I want another medal in Rio.’’
Defar has been absent from the elite level for most of the last two seasons because of childbirth and injury. She gave birth to her daughter in June of 2014 at a hospital in Vancouver, Wash., where some of her family lives. She had a difficult time returning to form, and last year she injured a calf muscle and lost out on competing in the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
“It was very difficult to come back training because after childbirth my weight was 10 kg more than normal, so I struggled to get my weight down,’’ Defar said. “Now I’m good. I’m feeling stronger than before childbirth. For example, when I’m doing intense training I can recover quickly and do more training.’’
At present, Defar finds herself in deep competing with other elite Ethiopian women, all of whom are younger than her. Almaz Ayana, 24, Senbera Teferi, 20, and Dibaba, 24, won gold, silver and bronze respectively at the 2015 outdoor World Championships in the 5,000 while Defar dealt with her calf injury.
Time waits for no one, especially in Ethiopia. “Yes, of course in Ethiopia all runners do very hard training almost all week,’’ Defar said. “Most of the runners (train) 12 times per week.’’
In Portland, Defar could find herself competing against countrywoman Dibaba if the latter chooses to run the 3,000 meters in addition to the 1,500. Dibaba is supremely talented in both events. In fact, she holds the indoor (3:55.17) and outdoor (3:50.07) world records for the 1,500m as well as the indoor world records for the 3,000 (8:16.60) and the infrequently-run 2-mile (9:00.48).
All of those three indoor records by Dibaba were established during her transcendent season of 2014, when she won the gold medal in the 3,000m at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland. Last summer, Dibaba broke the world outdoor record in the 1,500m – eclipsing the 22-year-old mark of 3:50.46 by China’s Qu Yunxia – and went on to win gold at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing.
If Defar and Dibaba do meet at 3,000m in Portland, Defar would have to be considered the underdog due to Dibaba’s youth and more recent accomplishments – only last month in Stockholm she set a world indoor mile record of 4:13.31, taking almost four seconds off the 26-year-old mark of Doina Melinte’s.
Nevertheless, Defar said the upcoming IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland are special for her because she has family members living across the Columbia River in nearby Vancouver, Wash., “where the hospital gave me much help with having my daughter.’’
She is in an intense training period now and reports, “My training is going well. I’m improving day-by-day in January. … At this stage (in my career), I’m good but I don’t know what will happen in the future.’’