Emily Moss caught up with Mahamed and Zakariya Mahamed, the Ethiopian-born Southampton AC brothers who have been making their mark on the track and on the country
Many have drawn analogies between the Mahamed brothers and Mo Farah as the brothers came to Britain from Africa for a better life. Just like Farah, Mahamed and Zak appear to glide across the track or mud with a long, rangy stride and they seem to have the winning knack. However, these similarities aside, Mahamed and Zak want to tread their own path through the sport and, judging by their many achievements, they are doing a pretty good job so far.
Eighteen-year-old Mahamed made his Great Britain debut at the European Cross in Hyères in December, finishing 22nd and counting fourth for his country, having been third in the trial at Liverpool and won the opening British Athletics Cross Challenge at Milton Keynes.
His GB call-up was just reward for his outstanding winter last year, which saw him win every cross-country race in his age group, including the English Schools, National and Inter-Counties. However, the ambitious athlete is keen to use his first experience of an international championships as a stepping stone.
“I learned a lot from my first time representing GB, but although I ran well, I know I need to improve,” says Mahamed.
Fifteen-year-old Zak also won English Schools and Inter-Counties Cross Country titles last year, as well as gaining a silver in the National. He won the England Athletics under-15 3000m title and improved his 5km parkrun PB to 15:33 – a UK age group record.
Coached by Peter Haynes, the talented pair train with a large mixed group of endurance athletes, made up of local runners and a mix of athletes from the city’s two universities, Southampton and Solent. Haynes works alongside Tony Fern and Jon Tilt at Southampton Sports Centre.
Speaking of their training, Haynes says: “They do a selection of track, hills and tempo runs, with the tempo runs being their favourite. The club competes nationally and gives the athletes the opportunity to compete at the highest level. Mahamed and his older brother Abdi made their debut last summer in the British League division one and Zak has appeared in the last two UK Young Athletes’ Finals in Birmingham.
“On a Wednesday, both of them make the trip to Solent University as part of the talented athletes programme. They receive excellent strength and conditioning coaching, massage and sports testing.”
Arguably their background has also contributed to their success so far. Growing up in the Ethiopian hills, the ability to run is part of their physical make-up, but at the same time, they have not had an easy life.
“When I was nine, I used to look after a herd of cows, sheep and goats,” says Zak. “I had to take them out to the field and get them in at night. I did not enjoy it and it was hard work.”
Such responsibility has undoubtedly contributed to the mental strength, which Haynes feels is a big factor in their success. “They do have a natural talent and their Ethiopian background has arguably contributed to their endurance, natural strength and good speed, but they also have a racing brain and want to win every race,” says Haynes.
So much so, that at the end of the National in Sunderland in 2013, Mahamed had to be helped by first-aiders, although that was probably in no small part due to the fact that he had not run in snow before and therefore he suffered in the cold.
“Despite that, it was one of my favourite races, as it was a new experience, a big challenge and I was pleased with the way I ran that day,” says Mahamed.
The boys arrived in Britain in 2010 from Jarso, Ethiopia. They spoke little English, so found life in their new country hard to begin with, but running helped them mix socially and find what they enjoyed doing. Now it seems that they feel fully integrated into their new homeland and they enjoy the friendships they have made through running.
Haynes says: “Quite early on I could see that I had great prospects on my hands. I asked them, if they could get to international level, who they wanted to run for. Without hesitation, they both said Great Britain and Northern Ireland, although watching videos of successful Ethiopian athletes does help motivate them.”
Despite that, the boys have retained links with their homeland and they would like to go back home for a holiday and to catch up with friends and family sometime soon.
They live in Southampton in a house of 10 brothers and cousins. Haynes says: “Reading Mo Farah’s autobiography, there are many similarities with his early years in the UK. Mahamed is a big Chelsea fan, and likes to have a kick about. They both enjoy playing football and basketball. At home they like to chill out, sleep and watch videos of their heroes Mo, Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele.”
The similarities with Farah do not stop there either. Just like the double Olympic champion and five-time world gold medallist, the boys had no family history in athletics and were introduced to the sport by their school teacher, Miss Dodds, at Cantell School in Southampton. She encouraged Mahamed to go along to Southampton AC. He started in the sprints group but his distance running potential did not go unnoticed. He was passed on to Haynes and his younger brother shortly followed suit. Mahamed is now at Itchen College and would like to go to university next winter to study a sports course, while improving his running.
“Working with the brothers has been a joy,” says Haynes. “They turn up at every training session smiling and mixing with the group. They listen and execute my thoughts at training and races, so I don’t have to say a lot to them on race day.
“They both love to train, compete and win and along with their Ethiopian background, this is a big strength of theirs. They have a natural talent, so if we can bring the talent and hard work together, they have a chance of reaching their full potential.”
Although clearly possessing a lot of talent and the ability to win, the million dollar question remains: do they have what it takes to emulate some of the achievements of their idol Farah? Haynes responds matter of factly: “People come up to me all the time and ask if they could be the next Mo Farah. My stock answer is that there is only one Mo Farah.”
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