Jakob Ingebrigtsen is born to run
He’s 18 years old and still in high school in Norway, but Jakob Ingebrigtsen isn’t just any teenager. The youngest of the famed running brothers from the small Norwegian city of Sandnes is fast becoming one of the best middle distance athletes of his generation, leading a new wave of talent that could even eclipse the fame of much-loved Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. The brothers, Henrik (28), Filip (26) and Jakob, are under the tutelage of their father – and now award- winning coach, Gjert. Their younger sister, Ingrid (13), is already emerging as a talent in her age group – but to the relief of their mother Tone, the youngest of her seven children, William (5), is yet to catch the running bug. Jakob’s older brothers Martin and Kristoffer bothalso opted out of the athletics route.
The youngest ever sub-four-minute-miler
Winter sports have been sewn into Norway’s history, and as the old saying claims, “Norwegians are born with skis on their feet,” so the world class Ingebrigtsen trio seem the very definition of outliers. Jakob, in particular, is on course to earn national treasure status. In August 2018, Jakob, who was already the youngest ever sub-four-minute-miler stunned the crowds at Olympiastadion in Berlin.
It was there, less than 24 hours after becoming the youngest track champion in European Championships history to win the 1,500m title, that he beat older brother Henrik to complete the fairytale double. Still just 17, Jakob took gold in the 5,000m, setting a new Europe an under 20 record.
“It was always in my plans to compete in Berlin, but at the same time it wasn’t supposed to turn out like that,” Jakob says, as he arrives home from school in time for lunch.
“I’ve always been the smallest brother who has tried to keep up, so what happened in Berlin was something special. Racing against both Henrik and Filip in a final was something we’d all dreamed of,” he adds, admit- ting he’s reluctant to re-watch performances if he’s not entirely satisfied, even if he took the gold medal in the race.
Two junior world records in 10 days
With Jakob’s utterlydominant displays becoming somewhat of a trademark, the results just keep rolling in. Less than a week after Ethiopia’s Samuel Tefera set a new world record, Jakob beat him in the 1,500m at the IAAF World Indoor Tour in Dusseldorf (February 2019). He knocked 0.19 seconds off his own junior world record set just 10 days earlier.
With the season in full swing, Jakob’s success continued. In March, he scooped gold in the 3,000m at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow, bolting past Henrik in the closing lap to secure victory. Amusingly, in a post-race TV interview Jakob joked the late evening start meant he had been up “16 minutes past bedtime.”
Britain’s Chris O’Hare – who rejoiced with silver – is just one of the competitors who claims there are only two medals up for grabs when Jakob is in the lineup.
“If that’s the case, then I believe even more in myself,” Jakob shrugs, as he settles down on the sofa in the family living room.
“I think that makes the other competitors lose before starting the race. The more time they think about me, the less they think about themselves and about doing the right things.”
“It’s all about running, and for me it’s always been that way”
Jakob is set to graduate from high school this summer and frequently travels to overseas training camps with a tutor in tow, but he admits it’s a balancing act he would rather not have.
“It’s all about running, and for me it’s always been that way. I’m really looking forward to finally being in a position where I focus only on that.
“It’s been really tough this last year to be motivated for school after getting up at 6:30am for a training session. That’s way too early for me,” Jakob says with a smile, admitting that snoozing the alarm coupled with a morning run often make him late for class. Since converting the basement at the family home into a spacious gym, locker room and apartment, it isn’t too far to roll out of bed.
“We understand that we have to put in the miles and work hard to be in a position to win championships and run fast. I know that if I don’t get up for training before going to school, then I won’t be capable of doing what I want to do as an athlete.”
‘I was four or five years old the first time I thought about the Olympic Games and it’s always been my main goal’
By the time Henrik and Filip had reached primary school age they were out rollerskiing in a nearby parking garage before the sun had even come up. Jakob, then three, was usually bringing up the rear on roller skates.
“I remember a teacher once asking Henrik, ‘Is it really true that you train before you come to school?’ It was unthinkable for most people,” Jakob says, “but even then, we wanted to be the best in the world.”
It seems the most mundane daily activities are an excuse to exercise the trio’s love of competition, according to Jakob, who’s admitted in press conferences that he does take satisfaction from beating his brothers on the track.
“It’s really competitive, it’s always been like that. We have to try and tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter who wins a training session, it’s just about what happens in competitions, but it’s tough sometimes.”
Both a father and a coach
Their father Gjert runs a tight ship. With a full-time job at Scandinavia’s largest logistics company and no prior experience in athletics, his achievements are nothing short of remarkable. Amassing vast amounts of knowledge through research and experienced coaches initially, as well as trialing some less conventional training methods, Gjert has developed a winning formula. But putting his children in a position to succeed and at the same time being delicate with discipline naturally comes with its challenges.
“It’s sometimes difficult to find a good balance, but I always try my best not to mix my role as a father with that as Jakob’s coach,” Gjert says.
“When we’re training, we’re usually in some kind of training facility, and during that time I’m the coach. When we’re at home, in our own house, I usually only have the father role to fill.”
“[Gjert] is a good person to have on your side when things go well, but also when they don’t,” Jakob says, as he describes his father’s meticulous planning and preparation when it comes to team logistics, travel and training. “If you’re injured, within 15 minutes he will have called six doctors and arranged treatment.”
Jakob is only too aware of the sacrifices Gjert and his mother Tone – who has run a hairdressing business for over 30 years, in addition to managing a hectic home life – have made for their children to realize their dreams.
Starring in the Norwegian reality TV series Team Ingebrigtsen
‘I’ve always been the smallest brother who has tried to keep up, so what happened in Berlin was something special’
As the Ingebrigtsenclan expands with wives, girlfriends and grandchildren, family time is something of a premium. “We work hard to keep the family together and we travel with the children or join them along the way as much as we can,” Tone says, pointing to a windowsill decorated with memorabilia they’ve collected in each city.
“The boys all know there’s always a seat for them at the dinner table here and there will be enough food to go around even on impromptu visits,” she continues, revealing she managed five loads of washing every day prior to her eldest children flying the nest.
Since 2016, the family have featured in a Norwegian reality TV series Team Ingebrigtsen and filming for Season Three is already underway. The warts-and-all docudrama has received extraordinary viewing figures – with more than one million households in a country of just five million people tuning in. Norwegians have witnessed the junior prodigy coming of age on the European stage. But Jakob’s ambitions go much further than that.
“I was four or five years old the first time I thought about the Olympic Games and it’s always been my main goal,” Jakob says, as he suggests taking a drive to Sandnes Stadium in his Team Ingebrigtsen-branded yellow Mercedes-Benz.
“I will never be 100% satisfied with my career if I don’t [win gold in Tokyo next year],” he continues, fastening his seatbelt and turning up a hip-hop playlist. “I may win good titles, medals and results, but it’s not enough – I want to become the best runner in the world.”
“My father always said, ‘You have big potential and you can get there’ – but he didn’t just say that. He said I will be a world champion – and I was stupid enough to believe him.”
Gjert was probably right.
Published: June 27, 2019