A Haile interesting encounter – Kerryman.ie

January 14th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Castleisland physio Ger Keane recalls his unique visit to Ethiopia. (more…)

Castleisland physio Ger Keane recalls his unique visit to Ethiopia.

Castleisland man Ger Keane from Hartmann International Sports Injury Clinic, based at the University Of Limerick, writes about his trip with Gerard Hartmann to Ethiopia where they met with Olympic star and Ethiopian national hero Haile Gebrselassie.

ETHIOPIA is different. Ethiopians dress well, with grace and dignity cornerstones of daily life. The trip from the airport is confusing. I am after all in Africa. The balmy scent of distant deserts carries in the air beneath a star-laden sky. Palm trees, red dust and crickets lure me into expecting the typical, African, hustle and bustle, industry of honest and clever existence to come rushing at me around the next corner. Nothing.

I can see sleeping reminders, tractor tyres on the roadside now used in an ingenious new life, an old car on blocks, a precious bank of future spare parts, but even these are orderly. Ethiopia has a newfound confidence in an emerging economy but equally, is slow to abandon the thrift of the past, which has ensured survival. Ethiopia is rooted in daily integrity.

Gerard Hartmann and myself from Hartmann International Sport’s Injury Clinic based at the University of Limerick in Ireland arrived in Ethiopia for the week preceding the ninth edition of the international road race, The Great Ethiopian Run, staged in November.

We were guests of Halle Gebreselaisse and Richard Nerurkar, the chief organiser of the event, which, this year, attracted 33,000 runners making it the biggest race in the continent of Africa. We arrived at the Hilton Hotel in the centre of Addis Ababa at 11pm on Tuesday, November 17 and we instantly knew that Ethiopia was different.

The purpose of our visit was for Gerard Hartmann, himself a world renowned physical therapist, to offer education in three main areas to a selected audience of elite Ethiopian athletes, national coaches and national medical support personnel over a series of three workshops, lectures and practical demonstrations.

At 11am on the first day we were to meet with Haile. He was dressed impeccably. As we approached him he was getting his shoes shined not so much for the gleaming result than the opportunity to reward the industry of the boy with his tip while asking him to stop as his job was a good one.

I sat in Haile’s office, situated in the penthouse suite with a postcard-panoramic view of the city below framed wit-h majestic mountains and clear blue sky behind. Haile chatted with Gerard Hartmann about his latest building project, a new lakeside hotel “Halle Resort” in Hawassa, Ethiopia, which is due to open in December 2009, and naturally a race was being organised to mark the opening.

Up to six employees came in and out of his office with questions answered or documents signed. Coffee was ordered, as “you must know Ethiopian coffee is the best!”

I sat in the presence of this calm, steady, successful businessman for fortyfive minutes who earlier in the morning had visited a local school where over 1,000 students had gifted him with enough flowers to fill the boot of his car. He sat back in his white leather chair crossed his legs, threw both hands back and yawned.

Suddenly I remembered that Haile was not a businessman, he was an athlete. He was the greatest athlete of our time. Gerard Hartmann asked “did you train today Haile?” Haile’s expression creased with intent, “of course”, he replied, “but today it was very early, I began at 5.30am, it was still dark”.

So which Haile should I try to describe because both men are on a journey of success and organised achievement with big dreams driven by two words – “of course!”

Later that day Haile sat intently beside the lecture podium with the Chief Medical Officer of Ethiopian Athletics Dr Woulde as Gerard Hartmann delivered his expertise and knowledge accumulated over the past twenty years. At intervals Haile jumped up and enthusiastically translated Hartmann’s views to the audience as both men passionately explained the importance of opening the minds of the audience to the necessary support systems for elite athletes and coaches to help prevent injury and increase performance.

Our second day began with the entire morning devoted to the clinical assessment screening and treatment of two of Ethiopia’s most successful track athletes, Tirunesh Dibaba and her husband Seleshi Keneni who between them have already won two gold, two silver and one bronze Olympic medals and numerous World Championship medals even though they are both still only in their mid twenties.

Tirunesh had very little English so Seleshi translated. As we shook hands to welcome them Tirunesh’s palms were wet and clammy. She stood there nervously anticipating the treatment.

Gerard Hartmann set to work, listening, disarming, reassuring, and teaching. This incredible athlete had a big problem. She had brought a pair of her running shoes. Two large chunks were missing from the soles of her shoes as if they had been bitten off by a dog. “How many miles have you run in these shoes?” “I have worn them just once for a 15 Kilometre run,” she replied.

My eyes opened in disbelief. More tests were performed partly for Hartmann’s quest for diagnosis, partly for the athlete’s education.

“Yes I can clearly see the problem”. Gerard’s tests revealed the answers in a way that was clearly visible to the athlete. We were one hour into the treatment and she had not yet spoken a word but for the first time a smile flickered across her face as her eyes lit up.

Treatment began. Alarm and pain silently creased her face as Gerard Hartman assuredly invaded the root of her problem. As the treatment unravelled so too did the closed stress of the athlete. Triunesh spoke quietly for the first time and began to seek information through Seleshi who continued to translate. They both became animated.

We had one request, that they relieve themselves of the burden of injury and placed it on our shoulders so the journey of healing could begin. It was going to be necessary that they come to the clinic in Ireland for intensive treatment over a seven to nine day period and dates were arranged.

They both left in gratitude and anticipation. Tirunesh gave Gerard Hartmann her shoes as a gift and statement of intent. We did not have time to reflect on the enormity of the reality that we had just shared our lives with two such humble, respectful, dignified and talented people who between them at such a tender age were already icons of the sport of athletics. The first of the delegates for our afternoon practical workshop were already coming down the stairs.

Friday brought a new energy as athletes, runners, joggers and walkers began to converge in Addis in advance of Sunday’s race. In the afternoon Gerard Hartmann gave a master class to a group of physiotherapists on the techniques of diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation, which are of most importance when treating an elite athlete.

It was a dimly lit room in the basement of Haile Gebreslassie’s gym complex. With one table in the centre, Gerard treated injuries of eight athletes, which varied from knee to ankle/Achilles injuries. Hartmann taught with an electric energy which succeeded in keeping the participants standing dutifully for over four hours as those at the back stood on boxes or tip toes so not to miss a fact-laden second.

The energy from instructor to student was so charged that at the end the entire audience had gathered outside the building in an attempt to gleam one last question from the “Daktari” which is the Kiswahlii name Hartmann has become affectionately known in Kenya, which simply means “Doctor”.

Amid photos, autographs and smiles of gratitude we were accompanied to the car with promises of a return. This Great Ethiopian Run was special. For the first time Paula Radcliffe was the guest of honour along with Derata Tulu, who had just won the New York City marathon two weeks earlier and Haile Gebreselassie. They launched the weekend of running with a pre-race press conference.

Saturday was a clinical day for Gerard Hartmann and Keane. Throughout the day we both worked on screening and treating specially selected athletes. Again enthusiasm, respect and gratitude filled our day as we tried to affect change where possible and route orthopedically where necessary.

Saturday night will remain a special memory. It was spent in the company of Tirunish Debaba and Seleshi Keneni who invited Gerard Hartmann and I to a meal at a traditional Abysinnan restaurant.

As we shared traditional food from a common dish on the centre of a small table we began to learn of the different regions of Ethiopia. It was interesting that the Dibaba sisters and Kinese Bekele were from the same region of Ethopia, where shyness is an inherent quality among those people. It was also interesting to hear that Tirunesh also has a younger brother who will soon be old enough to compete internationally.

Seleshi lovingly explained that Tirunesh loves to run and even when her career is finished she will still run forever. In Ethiopia, running starts with school championships from villages up to national finals. Only the top athletes are picked to join the athletic clubs which are all based in Addis Ababa. All of the elite athletes receive their training in these clubs.

The most staggering fact of all was that there is only one running track in the whole of Ethiopia and that is based in Addis. And so it came to Sunday the day of the Great Ethiopian Run.

From early morning a trickle of local runners walked towards the start line in an area of a town called Miskella Square. Within an hour this became a jammed procession. Everyone was wearing a green t-shirt that was the colour chosen for this year’s race (each year a colour is chosen, which is associated with the Ethiopian flag).

The race was to start at 9am. By 8.15am all the streets that led to the start were absolutely jammed with competitors who clapped, danced and sang to loud music.The army created a human starting line and as the excitement grew the crowd forced them to bulge with anticipation of the three foghorns, which were used to start the race, held high in the hot, sunny sky by Derate Tulu, Paula Radcliffe and Haile Gebreselassie.

The race started and a sea of green flowed through the street, which on any other day was a thirteen-lane highway in the city centre. 33,000 had signed up for the race but so many joined in along the route this number grew to almost 40,000 people taken part in the race.

The day finished with a party at Haile’s house for two hundred invited guests. Haile’s house is more like a palace which is four stories high. The entrance is encased by two Roman columns which stretch from the ground level all the way to the top of the fourth storey. Inside Italian marble is elegant and simple.

The large open-plan first floor houses Haile’s museum of trophies, medals and perhaps most striking of all a pair of his first running shoes. When I stand back and view the magnitude of his achievements I realise I will never reproduce this moment in my lifetime.

As the party unfolds it seems like a who’s who of athletics from athletes, agents, ambassadors, and TV crews to his extended family. Haile himself is as excited as a child at his own birthday party. He spontaneously dances with anyone who is willing, walks around with bottles of Ethiopian wine filling glasses.

Our week of education and treatment came to a close in Ethiopia. As we prepared to travel to Kenya to work with the athletic structures in that equally talented nation, I reflected on the enigma that is Haile Gebreselassie and the culture of world beating Ethiopian athletics.

Ethiopia is deeply different to Kenya in many ways. A whole new set of cultural nuances and systems had to be learned. We were in Haile Gebreselassie’s company for a lot of our visit and got a rare insight into his world and workings of elite athletics in Ethiopia.

A much better work ethic, deeply patriotic, rooted in the fact that their nation had never been successfully invaded in their history. The magic of Abyssinia, which was the original name of the country is as strong today and if such a thing can be said, even their poverty is industrious much to the annoyance of Haile who strongly believes that “you do not give money to the poor to merely lock them in their existence, instead give them opportunity through work”.

Work ethic was the drug I saw in Ethiopia. As for Haile, which man will I try to describe, the vibrant and hugely successful businessman, or the athlete who is so successful that he is known the world over simply as “The Greatest”?

I realise that the answer

i s simple. For Haile running is his business which he merely extends onto the stage of the commercial business world with the same clinical simplicity that has made him one of the greatest sporting icons of our time and a truly special human being who is lucky enough to live in an emerging Ethiopian nation that is uniquely different to our world.

As we said our goodbyes at the party Haile beamed his characteristic smile and held his two hands up in the air, “Hartmann my phone has not stopped ringing since you arrived, with athletes requesting treatment, you are amazing!

Gerard Hartmann beamed back, “Haile, will you be able to take the pain?” “Of course!” he called as he was ushered in front of a TV. Camera with a microphone pushed into his hand. The plane reached for the sky and I was happy that soon our experience would share the journey with this unique nation once again.

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