Olympics 2021: Dutch track star Sifan Hassan's quest for an improbable treble -- and Olympic history

Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands won gold in the women's 5,000 meters just hours after taking a fall in her 1,500-meter qualifying heat. Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

"Many people think I am crazy. I think also I am crazy," Sifan Hassan said after winning gold in the 1,500-meter race at Tokyo 2020 on Monday. That's because the 28-year-old Dutch runner has set her sights on a historic treble: winning a medal in the 1,500-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter races.

No one in Olympic history has completed a medals medley across a middle-distance event and both long-distance races in a single Games. Hassan, who was born in Ethiopia but fled to the Netherlands as a refugee when she was a teen, wants three golds. But a medal of any color in each event would be unprecedented. To do so, she will cover 24.5 kilometers (15.2 miles) on the Olympic Stadium track and run six races across eight days.

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The first day consisted of a straightforward 5,000-meter qualifying heat on Saturday, but on Monday, she had to compete twice: a 1,500 heat in the morning and the 5,000 final in the evening. And things did not go according to plan.

With about 300 meters left in the 1,500, Hassan tangled with Kenya's Edinah Jebitok and fell. The dream looked to be over.

But somehow, Hassan sprinted back to the front of the pack -- and won the heat. Her quest was still on, but the extra effort it took to fight her way back shattered her carefully planned schedule to conserve energy for the next races.

"Believe me, it was horrible, but sometimes I think bad things happen for good," Hassan said. "When I fell down, I said to myself, OK, life doesn't always go the way that you want. After that I felt like somebody who drank 20 cups of coffee. I couldn't calm myself down."

Twelve hours later, she was exhausted approaching the starting line for the 5,000. "Before the race here, I didn't even care. I was so tired," Hassan said. "I said maybe the 5,000m wasn't meant to be. I am not going to win the race, it is not my day."

But her inner voice was wrong. Hassan took gold in 14:36.79, just under two seconds ahead of Kenya's Hellen Obiri. Afterwards, she credited her victory, in part, to coffee: "I was so tired. Without coffee I would never be Olympic champion. I needed all the caffeine. I was so scared I wasn't going to do it."

Hassan showed signs of potential dominance in 2019. After a disappointing Rio Olympics, where she came fifth in the 1,500 and failed to qualify in the 800, she moved to the U.S. to join the Nike Oregon Project, where she worked under now-suspended trainer Alberto Salazar. (Hassan says her time with Salazar came after the period that led to his four-year doping ban.)

She switched to Nike coach Tim Rowberry, then won the 10,000m and 1,500m titles at the 2019 World Athletics Championship in Doha. She moved back to Europe when the COVID-19 pandemic began and, after the Diamond League meet in Monaco in July 2021, put together this remarkable plan for Tokyo. "I went to my manager, 'I am going to do three distances,' and he was like, 'uhh?' I didn't listen, I just decided," Hassan said.

Now, she is two races away from potential Olympics immortality. First up is the 1,500 final on Friday, where Hassan will be tested by Great Britain's Laura Muir and Kenya's Faith Kipyegon. Then on Saturday, Ethiopia's world-record holder Letesenbet Gidey will have her own plans to end this this quest in the 10,000-meter final.

Hassan's competitors are hoping all of this will catch up with her, as Australia's Linden Hall said after the 1,500 semis: "The best way to stop her is probably hoping she is tired by the time she comes to her fifth run, or whatever it will be on Friday."

But regardless of how Hassan's quest ends, she has taken the sport to new frontiers. "Life is not about the gold, the winner, it's also about following your heart," she said. "I am not great. I am just lucky."