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Albanian trailblazer Gega treads a lonely path to glory and greatness

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  • Albanian trailblazer Gega treads a lonely path to glory and greatness

“My life is not easy,” says Albania’s Luiza Gega, explaining the sacrifices needed to be who she is, to achieve what she has.

The 34-year-old is the reigning European champion in the 3000m steeplechase and holds the Albanian records at every distance from 800m (2:01.31) to the marathon (2:35:34). 

Last week, she became the joint most successful athlete in the history of the European Athletics Team Championships, her two victories in division three – in the 5000m and 3000m steeplechase – putting her alongside Bulgaria’s Ivet Lalova-Collio with 11 wins.


Her achievements are the envy of many, though few might be keen to sign up for Gega’s lifestyle.

She spends the vast majority of her year at altitude, alternating between a ski resort in Albania (at 1600m above sea level) and the rolling terrain of Iten in Kenya (2400m), where she has based herself during the European winter for the past nine years.

“All the time I train alone,” she says. “I stay far from home, my friends, my family. We don’t have a group so mentally it’s hard. When I have free time, I have no friends to eat or drink something. My best friend is my phone. For this (reason) I feel tired, and sometimes I feel I should stop, to have a life.”

And yet, she has no intention of stopping, at least until after the Paris Olympics, where Gega could become the first ever Albanian to win an Olympic medal.

“I hope everything goes well, that I’m healthy,” she says. “Then we’ll see.”

Her running story began at the age of 14. Gega grew up in Durres, a city of about 175,000 on the Adriatic Coast, and she first tried athletics at school, winning and qualifying for a competition against students from other cities, which she also went on to win.

“But until 19 I was not a good athlete, I just ran for fun,” she says. “When I got to university I said, ‘Okay, now I have to think: do I want to focus more on university or this?’”

That’s when she came under the guidance of Taulant Stermasi, a national team coach who has guided her career ever since. Her first major championship appearance was in 2011, Gega getting a baptism of fire at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Paris, watching helplessly as the field ran away from her in the 800m heats.

She trailed home in a pedestrian 2:08.75.

“I was behind all the girls and said to my coach, ‘I’ll never come to run like this again,’” she says. “I represent myself, but also the colours of my country, so I wanted to be with the group. From 2011 I started training hard.”

 Cr J7216 Radoslaw Jozwiak

That summer, she lowered the Albanian 800m record to 2:02.94, then in 2013 she lowered it again to 2:01.96 before switching her focus to longer distances. In 2015, she brought the Albanian 1500m record down to 4:02.63 and the following year she switched to the 3000m steeplechase, winning silver in the European final in Amsterdam in a national record of 9:28.52.

Gega continued to improve, continued working hard, lowering the Albanian record to 9:19.93 to finish ninth in the world final in Doha in 2019 before finishing 13th in the Olympic final in Tokyo. 

Last July, she finished a brilliant fifth in the world final in Oregon in a national record of 9:10.04 then finally climbed to the top step at a major championships last August, winning the European steeplechase title in gun-to-tape fashion in a championship record of 9:11.31 in Munich.

At the finish, the toll of the hard work in the past decade, and all the bumps she’d encountered, were clearly visible as Gega broke down in tears.

“People asked me, ‘Why (did) you cry?’ But not everybody knows how hard it was for many years. Most of them said, ‘I cried with you in that moment,’ because they felt so much (pride).”

It was a long, hard road to that point.

“I start from nothing. We are not like the big countries. They have idols, great athletes to follow. I follow only myself to try to get better.”

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As a teenager, Gega’s role model was Usain Bolt. But in her home nation, many youngsters now look to her with a similar reverence. “We don’t have so many good athletes from Albania, and I like to make them proud,” she says.

But that attention can also be a double-edged sword. “All eyes are on me, and sometimes that’s hard. They see me as a European champion, a great athlete, and yes, I feel this (pressure).”

Her teammates look to her as an icon, a role model. But among those less familiar with the level required to win major medals, anything shy of a top-three finish can sometimes be seen as a failure. She’s hoping to get closer to the podium at the upcoming World Athletics Championships in Budapest.

“They want more and more and they don’t realise how hard it is to be here, to take a medal, and sometimes I say to my coach, ‘Maybe it’s better to quit.’ He says, ‘We have to be world champion!’

“For many years, I didn’t have support from my country but now, after taking the big medal, things are changing through the government and federation. I have more responsibility, but the sport is not easy to have progress every year.”

Gega impressed with a 9:11.94 clocking in the 3000m steeplechase at the Diamond League in Florence earlier this summer and she’s hopeful of improving on last year’s fifth-place finish in Budapest.

“For sure I would like more, but you never know,” she says. “Sport is sport.”

When she does hang up her spikes, Gega has a new method in mind to inspire a fresh wave of Albanian talent: coaching.

“Somebody asks me if I want to be in politics, I’d love (to), but I love so much what I do,” she says. “When I stop doing athletics, I want to use all my energy and experience for young athletes.”

Having carved a path where none existed, few would be better placed to guide the next generation along it.

Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics

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