Derartu is the first Ethiopian woman to win a gold medal which she won in the 10,000m event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. The race, where her and Elana Meyer (South Africa) raced for lap after lap way ahead of the rest of the field launched her career. She sat out 1993 and 1994 with a knee injury and returned to competition in the 1995 IAAF World Cross Country Championships where she won gold, having arrived at the race only an hour before the start. She was stuck in Athens airport without sleep for 24 hours. The same year she lost out to Fernanda Ribeiro and won silver at the World Championships 10,000.
1996 was a difficult year. At the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Tulu lost her shoe in the race and had to fight back to get 4th place. She also finished 4th at the Olympic Games where she was nursing an injury. In 1997 she won the world cross country title for the second time but did not factor in the 10,000 metres World Championships. 1998 and 1999 she gave birth, but came back in 2000 in the best shape of her life. She won the 10,000 metres Olympic gold for the second time (the only woman to have done this in the short history of the event). She had also won the IAAF World Cross Country Championships title for the third time. In 2001 she finally won her world 10,000 track title in Edmonton. This was her third world and Olympic gold medal. She has a total of 6 world and Olympic gold medals.
As of 2009, Derartu Tulu is still running competitively, while most of her old rivals are retired or retiring. She is also remembered for her speed and her 60.3 second-last lap at the end of the 10,000 metres at the Sydney Olympics was a sprint of note.