Caster eyes rare double
Despite what the IAAF will have you believe, there is no grey regarding the talent and brilliance of South Africa’s Olympic champion, writes
Caster Semenya may have added the longer distance merely as a challenge, but winning the 800m-1 500m double at the IAAF World Championships in London is still an enticing prospect.
The South African has conquered everything she could over the two-lap event and could be making history at the global showpiece if she manages to cross the line first over both distances.
Three women in history have achieved this feat at the Olympics but no-one has ever won the 800m-1 500m at the World Championships.
Semenya’s coach Jean Verster said his charge decided to add the 1 500m at the championships as the schedule would allow her to race both.
“We will have to wait and see, it is a nice challenge, Caster is just keen on the challenge but it will be tough,” Verster said.
“The big reason we decided to do it — although training is going well — the programme allows for it which is not always the case.
“When we saw there were two full days between the 1 500m final and the first round of the 800m.
“In terms of scheduling it makes it a lot easier while both the 800m and 1 500m have rest days before the respective finals.”
While the country is salivating at the prospect of a potential double gold, Verster said winning would be a bonus.
“Because the training is going so well she decided to give it a go, we are not going in with major expectations,” Verster said.
“The thought was to go race and enjoy it and see what happens.There is no pressure on her to get a medal or win the race.”
Semenya coincidentally has something in common British middle-distance legend Dame Kelly Holmes, who was the last person to win the 800m-1 500m double gold at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Holmes used Semenya’s adopted home, Potchefstroom, as her winter training base during her heydey.
The British athlete used to stay with Verster when she would come to South Africa for her training.
“Although Kelly had her own coaches we helped her a lot.” – Ockert de Villiers
FIGHTING against rejection from her own sport since announcing herself to the world in 2009, Caster Semenya has become a shining example of tolerance.
This is displayed on the track — where Semenya makes a point of congratulating every athlete after a race, whether they finished ahead of her or metres behind — but also off it.
Semenya’s coach Jean Verster said his charge displays the same attitude whether she is on the winning side or on the losing end.
“That is the type of person she is. What I found interesting, even for me as her coach, when it did not go well in Rabat where she raced the 400m, she still went over to everyone to congratulate them,” Verster said.
“She does it for the right reasons and not because she is the winner, she did it when she almost finished last.”
Verster said Semenya has taken up the role as mentor to younger athletes while she shows respect to all people, no matter the class, country, or race.
“From a coach’s point of view, she is the ideal athlete, she is an easy athlete to deal with but she is also an extremely nice person,” Verster said.
“I say to people, and I don’t exaggerate, she is one of the nicest people you will meet. We had a session today (Wednesday) and before we started, she went to greet every single cleaner at the track before starting her warm up.
“She is that kind of person, she is a people person.”
Semenya is known as an extremely private person, which is understandable given the invasive scrutiny she has been subjected to.
Despite the unsavoury ordeal from eight years ago, Semenya has managed to remain surprisingly positive.
“Since the beginning, since she joined our group, she has been one of the easiest (going) athletes and nicest people you can work with,” Verster recalls.
“She is not one who moans about things, she does what she needs to do and she carries out her training without any problems.
“She has been somewhat of a mentor to some of the younger athletes, she enjoys to plough back and to work with the younger athletes.
“It is an absolute pleasure to work with her, she is not a demanding athlete, she is not a negative athlete.”
Semenya’s move to Potchefstroom to train under Verster in 2014 has seen the South African middle-distance ace grow into one of the most dominant forces in world athletics.
Semenya has not lost a twolap race since September 2015, when she finished eighth in a race in Berlin, and, with the exception of a 400m defeat to Tsholofelo Thipe at a meeting in Pretoria on March 2016, she has not lost a race in almost two years.
Over and above winning the Olympic title, Semenya has also broken her South African record three times — twice in 2016 and again in her final race ahead of the world championships at the Monaco Diamond League this month.
Since her world-title winning run as an 18-year-old back in 2009, which resulted in the gender verification storm, Semenya has grown into a strong, defiant figure.
Shortly after racing to her maiden Olympic title in Rio de Janeiro, Semenya, second and third-placed Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Kenyan Margaret Wambui were asked whether they were taking any medication to lower testosterone levels.
A stern Semenya took charge after a bewildered Wambui asked the media to rather focus on the athletes’ performances.
“Excuse me, my friend, tonight is all about performance, we are not here to talk about the IAAF, and some speculations,” Semenya said.
“Tonight is all about performances, and this press conference is about the 800m that we ran today, so thank you.”
Semenya has matured into an imposing and impressive woman who successfully juggles studies and professional athletics while also pursuing life as a business person.
Perhaps it is the many gravel roads Semenya has travelled up to this point that has steeled her for the many challenges. Verster believes though that his charge relishes the juggling act.
“She thrives when she is busy, some people are just like that, while others shy away from the pressure,” Verster said.
“As an example, we were supposed to train in the afternoon but she phoned me at 1.15pm saying: ‘Coach we need to train at 1.30 because I have class at 4.30 that I forgot about’.’ So a session that was supposed to be at four is all of a sudden at 1.30, we did the session, and funny enough it was a good one.”
It is a crucial weapon in her arsenal in competitive track athletics where nothing appears to rattle her in a race situation.
“At the end of the day, unexpected change in plans and programmes are things that affect athletes and they battle to adapt to sudden changes and challenges which are every day things in Europe,” Verster said.
“Many athletes can’t handle those kinds of changes but with Caster it almost makes her stronger. When the going gets tough, the tough gets going, that is Caster in a nutshell.”
It is that attitude that will give Semenya the edge when she lines up at her fourth World Championships where she will be looking for her second official title.