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

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

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.

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