After she crossed the line in her sixth and final race, following 24,500 meters of track running across nine days, Sifan Hassan collapsed to the ground. It was Saturday night in Tokyo, and the 28-year-old Dutch athlete had just won her third medal of the Olympics, kicking to gold in the women’s 10,000 meters in 29:55.32.
And she was tired, so very tired.
With gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and bronze at 1500, Hassan became just the second women in history to win three individual track medals at the same Olympics. (The other was also Dutch: Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won gold in the 100, 200, 80-meter hurdles, and 4x100-meter relay at London’s 1948 Games).
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After the 10,000, Hassan sat on the ground and pleaded for water from the volunteers, then crawled to an area beside the track where she placed ice packs under the soles of her feet for about seven minutes before she found the energy to stand.
“I was suffering,” she said. “The 10,000 is crazy with the heat.”
Crazy: It’s a word Hassan used many times over the past week. She used it to describe her plan to take on three finals in six days against the world’s best. She used it to describe herself. “Many people think I’m crazy” she said. “I also think I’m crazy.”
Where did she get the idea? Hassan said it started last year with a joke from a friend who asked her why she wouldn’t just run all three distances at the Olympics.
“At first I had to laugh,” Hassan said. “But then I thought, ‘nobody does that.’”
That made her want to try.
Throughout the year she wouldn’t reveal any plans, hoping to keep her options open until the last moment. She entered all three distances, but most expected her to line up in two, with the 1500-10,000-meters or 5,000-10,000-meters doubles most likely due to scheduling.
For much of the year, Hassan thought she’d do two, but a loss over 1500 meters to Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon at the Monaco Diamond League in July changed her thinking, her anger fueling a fresh desire.
“Losing makes me crazy; I can climb (a) mountain when I lose,” she said. “I was really scared to make the triple, but when I didn’t get what I wanted in Monaco, I told my manager, ‘I’m going to do three. I don’t care what happens, I’m going to do it.’”
One of the first people she consulted was Tim Rowberry, who took the coaching reins in her career following the four-year ban handed down in 2019 to Hassan’s former coach, Alberto Salazar, for breaching anti-doping rules.
“I was thinking for months for myself then I called (Tim) and said, ‘I want to do three,’” Hassan said. “He went quiet. (But) my coach is also a little bit crazy. He’s like, ‘Yes you can.’”
Before Monaco, Hassan was the favorite for all three events in Tokyo, but after that loss she became an underdog at 1500.
“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “Why don’t I just do a crazy thing? I like crazy things.”
Her path to this point had been a difficult one—both on and off the track. Hassan grew up in Ethiopia but moved to the Netherlands at the age of 15, staying at a shelter for young asylum seekers. She rarely speaks of that time in her life, not wishing to be drawn on political issues in Ethiopia that drove her away. In Tokyo she gave a small insight into her early years.
“I really had an amazing life until I was 14, I was full of play, happy,” she said. “After 14 I really had difficulty. Life put me so many times down.”
Her message to others going through hard times?
“Nobody has a perfect life,” she said. “When life is hard, you will see yourself like you never imagined. Never give up.”
In Tokyo, that never-say-die attitude was infused in her running.
On the first night she coasted to victory in her 5,000-meter heat, but three days later she faced her first big road block: Hassan fell with less than a lap remaining in her 1500-meter heat, then quickly rose to her feet and clocked an incredible 43-second last 300 meters to hit the line in front.
The only issue with that massive effort? She had to run the 5,000 final less than 12 hours later. The adrenaline of the fall left her wired all day, feeling like she drank “20 cups of coffee.”
“I couldn’t calm myself down, the whole day I was shaking,” she said. “In the evening I was so tired. I just said, ‘I want to finish, no way (will I win) gold. Just finish the race.’”
As she warmed up she felt “pain everywhere.” Before and during the race, Hassan said she fought some internal demons. “You can’t, no you can,” she recalled thinking. “It was like a nightmare.”
In that 5,000 final she clocked a blazing last lap of 57.36 seconds to take gold in 14:36.79. Soon after she experienced life as an A-list Olympic star. Hassan obliged every interview request in the mixed zone, taking about 90 minutes to get through them all–and then she went to the press conference.
The following day she had a rest from racing, but the day after that she toed the line again, winning her 1500-meter semifinal. She lined up for the final in that event last Friday, and tried to push the pace early to draw the sting out of Kipyegon’s kick. But it was futile, the Kenyan powering to gold in an Olympic record of 3:53.11, with Hassan third in 3:55.86 after Britain’s Laura Muir overtook her for silver.
Learning her lesson from the night of the 5,000, Hassan made a quicker journey through the mixed zone and skipped the medalists’ press conference, returning to the start line just 22 hours after the 1500 for the 10,000 final. Her big rival there was Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia, who broke Hassan’s 10,000-meter world record earlier in the summer.
After a steady start, Gidey pushed the pace, but it was never quick enough to drop Hassan, who waited patiently before unleashing an astonishing kick to take gold, her final 100 meters covered in 13.6 seconds. That was quicker than both the 800 and 1500-meter women’s gold medalists had run their last 100 and also quicker than Allyson Felix finished when winning bronze in the 400.
Despite her dominance, Hassan never felt confident during the race.
“Until I cross the line, I have doubt,” she said.
She revealed she had been suffering pain in her neck during the closing laps, and on her lap of honor she motioned to staff in the Dutch team that she needed treatment.
What comes next? Hassan said she will soon attempt a world record, with the 10,000 meters a likely target. “But it doesn’t matter how fast I’m going to run, it’s not going to be close to this,” she said, holding up her gold medal.
A devout Muslim, she said the toughest part of her preparation was maintaining training during Ramadan, which ran from April 12-May 12, during which observers are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset. She said a 27-kilometer run on one particularly hot day left her “almost getting (heat) stroke.”
There were many times she questioned what she had signed up for by deciding to triple in Tokyo.
“Sometimes I woke up from a nightmare and asked: ‘Why do I have to make myself so stressed?’ Something inside me tells me I have to do it then I say, ‘no, I can’t.’ It was like two persons.”
Before she pulled off what she did, many figured her idea was one that may backfire, but Hassan has proven it was possible. She knew it might not end with three titles, but she was okay with that.
“Life is not only about the gold and winning and fame,” she said. “It’s also about following your heart.”
Cathal Dennehy is a freelance writer based in Dublin, Ireland, who covers the sport for multiple outlets from Irish newspapers to international track websites. As an athlete, he was Irish junior cross-country champion and twice raced the European Cross Country, but since injury forced his retirement his best athletic feat has been the Irish beer mile record. He’s happiest when he’s running or writing stories about world-class athletes.