Yeman Crippa: How the Ethiopian-born runner is rewriting Italian records

The 24-year-old was adopted by an Italian family after Ethiopia's civil wear left him orphan at the age of five. Following a record-breaking 2020, the 2018 European bronze medallist is now focused on his Olympic debut in Tokyo. 

By Evelyn Watta

As a young boy Yemaneberhan Crippa fell in love with football, even if his favourite part was always running with the ball.

He played in central midfield and ran around a lot, though he lacked the footwork and technique to make it in the beautiful game.

"I wasn’t very skilled. I was all heart and lungs!"

Playing calcio in a country passionate about football awoke something inside the Ethiopian-born Italian.

The lush pitches around his new home in northern Italy were a far cry from the remote fields of Dessie, north-central Ethiopia where he grew up, and would sometimes wander off herding his parent’s cows.

In the end it wasn't wasn't football, but one of the cross-country races at school which he used to easily dominate that would set Crippa on the path that changed his life.

A local coach convinced him to forego his passion and embrace his strength, running.

The double European champion who lost his parents during the civil war in Ethiopia now harbours Olympic dreams and is breaking records along the way.

"My long-term goal is to win a medal at the Olympics and the Worlds. These (records) are intermediate goals, where I can gauge if I’m working well." - Yeman Crippa

Yemaneberhan Crippa at the 2019 World Championships in Doha.

2020: A record year

On the 8th of September Ugandan distance runner Jacob Kiplimo stole the show at the Ostrava Golden spike meet.

The teenager came from way back to win the 5000m race in a meet record of 12:48.63, the third-fastest time this season.

Kiplimo pulled the field behind him and served as a pacer for seven of the eight men in the race, as six ran personal records, and the other a season-best.

One of two Italians in that 5000m, Crippa ran an incredible race.

Looking the business in that a dyed-blonde dreadlocked mohawk 'do, he crossed the line in third place in 13:02.26 - nearly three seconds faster than 1988 Olympic silver medallist Salvatore Antibo's Italian record time that had stood for 30 years.

“I did 13’02 in a race where I was alone for half of it. I could have shaven off a few more seconds and gone below 13’ even this year,” he told the Olympic Channel.

That astonishing time behind Kiplimo’s meet record of 12:48.63 and second-placed Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega 12:49.08, was Crippa’s third national record in 11 months.

At his debut World Championships in Doha last October he finished eighth in the finals, bettering the 10,000m national record to 27:10.76.

He then ran the fastest ever 3000m by an Italian during the Diamond League on September 17 at Stadio Olimpico, going 7:38.27.

Amazing feats for any athlete, but hearing his story makes them even more remarkable.

Orphaned at five

Yemaneberhan Crippa or simply "Yeman Crippa" was born on a rural farm in Dessie, a town situated on the Great Rift Valley.

Ethiopia's civil war that lasted from 1974 to 1991 left him an orphan at the tender age of five. Crippa and some of his brothers and sisters were moved to an orphanage 400km away in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

When he was seven, he along with five of his siblings were adopted by an Italian couple, the Crippa’s, and moved to a small village on the northern slopes of Trentino.

“I was lucky to have a second chance,” he says.

"It was like being born again, I moved from a place where I had nothing to ‘heaven’, to a place where I could see a future." -Yeman Crippa on his adoption.

Crippa and two of his brothers Kelemu and Nekagenet, are also runners, and some cousins relocated to Italy between 2003 and 2008 with the same Italian family too.

“My parents say they did something normal, but I don’t know how many people would adopt three kids and then three more, and then two more cousins! My two sisters and I were the first, then we asked if they could adopt our other three siblings. Two years later it was our cousins’ turn.”

“I will never forget Ethiopia, it’s the place where I was born and I’m grateful for that. I grew up and I started a new life in Italy,” tells Crippa, who’s coached by Massimo Pegoretti.

“I feel 60-70% Italian and the rest Ethiopian.”

Two of the eight siblings, Yeman and Nekanget, a mountain running champion, rose to become world-class athletes, an oddity in Trentino, famed for its cross-country skiing.

Their life stories and track records even inspired a documentary film titled ‘Yema and Neka’ that was screened during the 2015 Trento Film festival. In that same year Crippa blazed the world cross country trails in Guiyang, China.

Cross country is my passion

After years of kicking a ball in school and around his home, the 24-year-old was spotted by a local coach, the late Marco Borsari. From there, he rose quickly up the ranks, dominating his town’s track meets.

“I started to compete in local races because I knew I could win and get a trophy. Things then got more serious, at 15 I took part in the World (Cross Country) Championships, so I decided to quit football and focus on athletics,” Crippa remembered.

He was part of the Italian team that finished sixth at the 2013 World Cross Country, before setting the 1500m national junior record at the World18 championships in Donetsk later that year.

Yemaneberhan Crippa competing in the Junior Men's 6k race during the Great Edinburgh Cross Country in Edinburgh Scotland. 

Since then he has had a flurry of national track records and great runs.

“I started running on the mountains, encouraged by my first coach, and that’s where I won my first races,” he explained.

“Later on my dad suggested I try cross-country and track and I stopped racing on the mountains.”

“I prefer cross-country because I can feel freer mentally. Running on a track sometimes is boring…” he adds cheekily.

“On the track, I started running 800m-1500m, although I knew that my distance was 5000m-10,000m. To get there I needed to work on my speed when I was younger so I could compete in the longer distances.”

The silver lining

Like many athletes Crippa, the 2018 European 10,000m bronze medallist, was looking forward to a career-high 2020. He had qualified for Tokyo Olympic Games in the 10,000m.

“When they postponed (the Games), I was gutted for a few days, I asked myself, ‘what am I going to do without goals?’ Then I tried to find a silver lining,” said Crippa.

“I didn’t know when I would race next, so I started to train with my mind free, with no pressure. I had time to work on different aspects and, like many athletes, I also benefitted from some rest.”

Pressure-free, Crippa found his best form in three of the four majors races he competed this season. Two were in record times and he just missed the 1500m national record.

“It’s amazing to see this kind of performance in a season complicated like this one, where we spent weeks locked down without training. This represented an additional motivation for me,” he said of a record-breaking year highlighted by Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei's 5000m and 10,000m world records.

“He did the world record; I did the Italian record with 13’02. But I’m still 30 seconds slower…That’s why I need to work a lot to lower my time further.”

Cheptegei’s mark in the 5000m is 12:35.36, and 26:11.00 in the longer track distance.

But the best is yet to come for the lover of trap music. He feels he is now in a place where he can dream big.

“My goal is to break 13 minutes in the 5,000 and maybe 27 minutes in the 10,000m next year," said Crippa, who also serves in the Italian Police.

'“These (records) are intermediate goals, so I can gauge if I’m working well or if I need to correct something in my preparation, there’s still a long road ahead."

“My long-term goal is to win a medal at the Olympics and the Worlds.”

Crippa is realistic about his chances.

“For sure next year I’ll be a stronger athlete. I am not saying that if I’m now placed eighth, I can get to second. But I can maybe race for fourth or sixth place, maybe even fourth if I am lucky."

“There are two or three athletes who are head and shoulders above everyone else, both in the 5000m and 10,000m. The rest of us can compete for the positions below them.”-Yeman Crippa on Tokyo Olympics.

Training most of the time in the famous high-altitude region of Iten in Kenya surrounded by some of the world’s best distance runners has further boosted his endurance and confidence.

It’s also closer to his country of birth where he visits often, and home to some of his greatest idols.

“I looked up to (Kenenisa) Bekele. When I started running, he and (Haile) Gebrselassie were dominating at the international level. Later my reference has become Mo Farah, who’s running style is spectacular.”

Mo Farah gave me his vest and I have it framed at home! It was during a meeting indoor in Birmingham in 2017: he won the 5K race. I set the Italian record and in the end, we swapped vests. Probably he threw mine away,” he laughs.

Crippa is relishing the chance to race the four-time Olympic champion again in Tokyo as Britain's most successful track athlete ever plans to defend his 10,000m title at the Games.

Whatever happens, the man representing Italy and Ethiopia knows he's come a long way.