Two days before the SPAR European Cross Country Championships, Efrem Gidey didn’t know if he would be able to compete.
The 19-year-old was fit, raring to go, but as he sat at his home in North Dublin, officials at Athletics Ireland were in a race against time to secure his travel visa. And so he waited – and waited – for the call that told him he could travel to Lisbon for the U20 men’s race.
Having fled Eritrea in 2016, Gidey spent six months at a refugee camp in Calais, France before arriving in Ireland in March 2017. While his status as an Irish citizen has since been secured, it will be several months before he receives his passport, making international travel a complicated procedure.
Athletics Ireland nonetheless entered him in the U20 race, and the necessary paperwork came through from the Portuguese embassy less than 48 hours before the race. Gidey got the call around midday last Friday, got on a flight at 4.00pm that day and arrived in Lisbon, a few hours after his Irish teammates.
On his international debut, his coach set him a simple goal: to finish inside the top-10. “I thought he could be top five but I said to him top 10,” said his coach Joe Cooper. “There’s no point putting pressure on young fellas.”
The gold medal in the U20 men’s race was always going to go to Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen who coasted to the lead on the first lap, coming home a whopping 38 seconds ahead to take his fourth straight title.
But the field headed out on their final lap in Lisbon, excitement grew among the Irish fans who had travelled to the Portuguese capital in their numbers as Gidey was locked into a battle for silver. He surged clear of Türkiye’s Ayetullah Aslanhan as they headed up the hill for the final time, but Aslanhan found something extra to take second on the downhill run to the line.
To Gidey, his bronze medal felt as good as gold. “I’m so happy, I don’t believe it,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”
At one point in his post-race interview, the 19-year-old had to pause to step aside, the emotion of the moment, his achievement, suddenly hitting him like a tsunami.
His journey to a European podium had been a long one. Gidey is not keen to relive much of it, saying only of his time in Calais that “it was a hard life, very tough.”
It was a big day for Efrem Gidey who won individual bronze in the U20 men's race on his debut for Ireland at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships. pic.twitter.com/ke6wT6xS6q— European Athletics (@EuroAthletics) December 8, 2019
When he arrived in Ireland he did not speak English, but he quickly made friends after enrolling at Le Cheile Secondary School in Tyrrelstown in west Dublin, where he worked tirelessly on his language skills.
Two months after arriving, he was brought to Clonliffe Harriers, a club based at Morton Stadium in north Dublin. “He had very little English so I used to communicate in minutes, written on a piece of paper,” said Cooper.
At the beginning his coach kept it simple – 20 minutes, 30 minutes – but as Gidey’s English improved he introduced specific workouts.
In those early months there was little indication of the talent Cooper had on his hands, but in March 2018 he found out. Gidey had usually trailed his clubmate Sean O’Leary in workouts, but as they completed a session of 16x500m on the build-up to the Irish Schools Cross Country Championships, he was suddenly able to keep up.
Gidey coasted to that title by 14 seconds, and he added the Irish schools’ 5000m title on the track a few months later. In December last year he finished eighth in the U20 race at the Irish Cross Country Championships, but he returned stronger than ever in 2019.
Given his academic workload, Cooper has kept his training to a sensible workload, with Gidey logging 50-60 miles (80-96 kilometres) a week. “With learning English sometimes the time is a little bit gone,” said Gidey. “Sometimes I only do a little bit of training because that is time I use with my translator. It was sometimes difficult to combine school and training.”
Nonetheless he emerged fitter than ever this year, winning the Irish schools cross country title by 23 seconds and then the Irish schools 5000m title by 27 seconds. At the Irish Cross Country Championships last month he decided to help his club in the battle for team honours by running the senior race, finishing ninth in the 10km.
That took a toll, and Gidey struggled with illness the week after the race. But he felt back to himself in the final days before travelling to Lisbon and after getting the green light with his visa, he was prepared to give it everything for his adopted nation.
“Every time I’m looking for the Irish team, what places we finish,” he said. “My (goal) was for Ireland, my country, to win.”
His third-place finish, backed up by Darragh McElhinney in 12th and Thomas McStay in 24th, placed the Irish team fourth, beaten to the bronze only on countback due to Portugal’s third scorer finishing higher than Ireland’s. But that near-miss couldn’t take the shine off Gidey’s day.
Pure emotion! Joe Cooper and Efrem Gidey. pic.twitter.com/yEBCmzIXGv— Morton Games (@MortonGames) December 9, 2019
Back in Dublin, Cooper watched the live stream with a group from his club. Gidey’s coach had booked flights to Lisbon but after struggling with a medical issue on the build-up to the event he made the tough choice to watch from afar.
“The doctor said to me, ‘I’m not telling you not to go but I’m advising you not to go because you could pick up a bug in the airplane and you could end up in hospital for two weeks. Is it worth that?’
“Now, in hindsight, it probably would have been,” he said with a laugh.
The coach and athlete shared an emotional embrace when they met in the airport the following day. “I know I’m not his father, but we’re from the same tree,” said Cooper. “He’s a dream to coach.”
Since Sunday there has been a deluge of interest from American colleges hoping to take Gidey stateside on a scholarship, and the teenager will weigh up his options over the coming months. Having raced Ingebrigtsen and experienced his first European Championship, Gidey wants more of the same in the future.
“It was my first big race, very fast at the start and a little bit hard,” he says. “It was very crazy, but it is experience for me. The next time I’ll improve.”
For all the distance Gidey has travelled, his journey could be just getting started.
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics