He was born in a refugee camp in Sudan; now he represents Australia on the world stage. Dejen Gebreselassie explains his pride in his adopted home and the healing power of running. By Robert Kidd.
Keeping the faith: Dejen ‘DJ’ Gebreselassie, 25, runner
My mum and dad are from Gondar, a city from the Amhara region of Ethiopia. But I was born in a refugee camp called Amrakuba, in Sudan. Mum and Dad walked to Sudan from Ethiopia to escape the war. In Sudan it was very tough. It wasn’t our country, and being a second-class citizen in a refugee camp is a very difficult life. When I was 10 years old I worked in a restaurant to support my family. When I was 11 we had a call saying, “You guys are lucky, you can go to Australia.”
In Grade 7, we had cross-country and I won it with no shoes – I ran barefoot. My PE teacher said, “You should join a club and one day you will run for Australia.” I always say, even if you can’t see your talent, someone else can.
I started to really focus on my athletics in 2017. I said, “Okay, I want to make the Australian team and do really well in national races.” At the start of this year, I ran a massive 10-kilometre personal best – 29:22 – at the Hobart 10 kilometres. I was seven seconds behind Liam Adams. He’s an Olympian. I want to be challenging with those guys.
In March, I ran in the World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia in Spain. It was absolutely the biggest race of my career so far. You are racing with the world’s best runners and I’d been training for it for one year. I ran a PB of 63:47 but it wasn’t the time I was hoping for. I had the flu before the race and during it I was coughing a lot. But to run a PB makes me even more hungry for success and makes me want to work even harder for the next race.
Running for Australia means a lot to me. You’re representing nearly 25 million people and everyone is behind you. It’s about people supporting you and having faith. That’s what an athlete needs. When someone says, “I believe in you, DJ”, it really gives me a boost. That’s all I need.
It’s normal to be a little bit nervous before a race, but when the starting gun goes it’s different. It’s a different feeling and once you’re locked in at a good pace the nerves break away. The thoughts that go through my head are all the training I have done and all the good, fast races I have done. It’s all about positive thinking and a good mindset.
I came to Australia in 2004. It was a long journey. I have three sisters and three brothers and they are all here. We landed in Melbourne and were told we were going to Tasmania. We didn’t know where that was. But we found out that Hobart is a great city and Tasmania is beautiful. I live in Melbourne now but still go to Tasmania to see my family and train in the hills there.
Running is like healing. It’s so joyful for me. If my coach tells me to rest, I feel good. But I feel even better if I jog. I am an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and my faith means a lot. When I run I think about people who are less fortunate than me. And I visualise where I come from – the refugee camp and the bad winters when it rained and we walked with no shoes. We didn’t have a proper house in Amrakuba, it was a tent. Those things are in my head when I run.
My coach, Sean Williams, sends my training program by email and I train on my own. It’s hard running by yourself, I want someone to push me. I train every day, twice a day. On Sunday, I call it rest even though I run in the morning. Someone said to me, “Do you rest on Sunday?” I said, “Yeah, in the evening.” They said, “Thirty kilometres in the morning isn’t a rest!” In total I run between 170 kilometres and 220 kilometres a week.
I went to Ethiopia for the first time in 2014 to train and see the country where my mum and my dad come from. I was supposed to go for two months but I stayed for six months. I just loved it. I forgot about the training and I wanted to learn about the history of the country. I was amazed how the people of Ethiopia live. Now I want to go back to Ethiopia for serious training, six months of really hard work. And maybe I can help the poor people I saw in some small way.
I am very lucky and very blessed that Australia gave us the chance and the opportunity to have a new life. I’m grateful for the opportunity and I’m going to use it in a positive way. I’m kind of giving back to the Australian people for what they have given me. It’s not enough yet because I want to do a lot of things. My dream is to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 either in the 10,000 metres or the marathon. You have to be realistic – I’m not the best, but I want to be the best. They say you have to dream big, and I want to dream big.
This week’s highlights…
• Netball: NSW Swifts v Melbourne Vixens
Saturday, 3pm (AEST), Quaycentre, Sydney Olympic Park
• AFL: Adelaide Crows v West Coast Eagles
Saturday, 4.05pm (ACST), Adelaide Oval
• NRL: Brisbane Broncos v Canberra Raiders
Saturday, 7.35pm (AEST), Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
• Rugby union: Super Rugby – Brumbies v Hurricanes
Saturday, 7.45pm (AEST), GIO Stadium, Canberra
• Athletics: Gold Coast Half Marathon and Marathon
Sunday, 6am and 7.20am (AEST), Southport, Queensland
• Tennis: Wimbledon
Monday until July 15, All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 30, 2018 as "Keeping the faith".
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