This is a very interesting piece. On the day that Jakob Ingebrigtsen won his sixth European title and his first senior men’s cross country title, Matt Wisner provided us with some insight into the father-son relationship of Gert Ingebrigtsen and Jakob Ingebrigtsen, which is a curiousity for much of the athletics world.
I met Gert in 2019 at the PSD Dusseldorf indoor Meeting, and I theorized then that Gert ran all 3 brothers lives pretty closely. Matt Wisner shows that was not completely correct. Jakob Ingebrigtsen, has a different relationship with his father than his older brothers.
And for Jakob, that works.
Jakob Ingebrigtsen takes EA Senior Men’s Cross country, 12/12/21, photo by European Athletics
Gjert Ingebrigtsen says Jakob’s success comes from making mistakes with the older brothers.
A narrow and sharp paternalism was Gjert Ingebrigtsen’s natural tendency as a coach and a father. But Jakob broke him.
By Matt Wisner
Today Jakob Ingebrigtsen won the European cross country championships, covering the 10k course 14 seconds faster than the second-place finisher, dramatically pulling away with a kilometer remaining to secure victory. Coming off a long spring season that culminated in an Olympic gold medal in the 1500, this was his first and only cross country race of the year.
It’s rare to avoid racing until championships, but it makes sense for Ingebrigtsen. He told me, “My main goal is to win major championships and beat records.” Jakob flew to Dublin, won a major championship, and then flew out of Dublin.
Ingebrigtsen has established himself as one of the most prolific distance runners in the world, and he’s only just turned 21 years old. Before today, he’d already won European titles on the track and indoors–which he first did when he was 17 and 18 years old, respectively. This is his sixth European title.
“Jakob has already been a top athlete in the world for four or five years already,” his father and coach Gjert told me. “The commentators have been predicting for two or three years now that Jakob has already peaked. When he became double European champion in 2015, ‘He’s already peaked. He’s gone. He’s finished.'”
But clearly that’s not true. Jakob is still developing. He’s on the top of his game. He’s winning every race he enters, regardless of the distance.
For Jakob to be this successful, Gjert must be doing something right. But it hasn’t come without consequence. Gjert admits that he made mistakes with the older Ingebrigtsens, Henrik and Filip.
“With Henrik especially, we tried to control his life,” Gjert told me. “Early on, they lived in a much more controlled environment.”
Running fast is, on some level, a science project; the body is a machine, and there are clear ways to prepare it to be stronger, better, faster. That’s how Gjert understood coaching, and that’s how he trained his sons. He was never an athlete of any kind, and he didn’t know anything about athletics, but as somebody who wanted to see his sons be great, a narrow and sharp paternalism was his natural tendency as a coach and a father.
But Jakob broke him.
“When Jakob was 16 there was a girl ringing on the doorbell,” Gjert told me. “I said, ‘Jakob there is no time to be with her. Tell her to come back in five or 10 years,’ and Jakob told me ‘You can’t do that with my life. It’s my life and my decisions, and if I want to be with this girl, it’s up to me.’
Jakob told Gjert, “I can quit today. The only way to be at my best is to have a normal life.”
The girl at the doorbell is the girl he’s still with today. She’s now his fiancÃ©.
According to Gjert, Jakob understands sustainability in a way his older brothers didn’t, mostly because Jakob put his foot down and decided the terms of his relationship with his father. One of the important pieces for Jakob’s success is living a normal life, finding balance outside of running.
“His life is very normal,” Gjert told me. “He doesn’t have any blind spots or empty spaces in his life. He has his fiancÃ© and his dog and his own apartment and his own life. He doesn’t feel like he’s missing anything. I think that’s a part of sustainability. You have to live as close to a normal lifestyle as you can while still being focused.”
It seems to be a matter of personality. Jakob has no trouble being in the driver’s seat, declaring that what he wants is what will be. He seems to have a bold stoicism that maybe only comes with being the youngest child. Maybe it takes a passive observance in the shadows of your older brothers to foster a kind of empowered defiance, to understand how to stand up to your father. Jakob had the luxury of watching two of his older brothers become some of the world’s best distance runners, and he could decide what would remain the same and what would be different.
Maybe Jakob doesn’t rely on running the same way his older brothers do. Maybe he’s comfortable enough with himself as a person–comfortable enough with his fiance, comfortable enough with his hobbies–that he could step away from the sport the moment his passion lapses.
“Maybe I’ll run for another year,” Jakob has told his father. “Maybe I’ll run for two years. I don’t know. I can’t see myself running in 10 years. I will do something else with my life.”
When I asked about Jakob’s other interests, Gjert told me he’s really into motor sports. “Jakob has collected three sports cars and a motorcycle, and I don’t like it at all,” Gjert told me. “Maybe he’ll want to do motor racing when he’s finished with athletics.”
Gjert told me that Jakob’s interest in motor sports was cultivated against his father’s wishes. “I have always been a motor guy, but I put it all away when I had the boys because I didn’t want them to see it.”
But if we’ve learned anything about how Jakob Ingebrigtsen operates, it’s that he makes the rules.