CASTER SEMENYA

CASTER SEMENYA HAS EN­JOYED AN­OTHER UN­BEATEN YEAR OVER 800m AND, DE­SPITE THE IM­MI­NENT NEW IAAF RULES ON TESTOS­TERONE LEV­ELS, SHE IN­TENDS TO RACE FOR AN­OTHER 10 YEARS

Athletics Weekly - - Contents - WORDS: STU­ART WEIR PIC­TURES: MARK SHEARMAN

Mid­dle-dis­tance icon tells Stu­art Weir about how she in­tends to take in a fur­ther five out­door world cham­pi­onships

THIS has been a good year for Caster Semenya, demon­strat­ing not only her dom­i­nance but her ver­sa­til­ity. She won two golds at the Com­mon­wealth Games, two ti­tles at the African Cham­pi­onships, she was Di­a­mond League cham­pion and ended the year by win­ning at the IAAF Con­ti­nen­tal Cup. Dom­i­nat­ing at 800m with a best of 1:54.25, she also won 1500m at the Com­mon­wealth Games and is African cham­pion at 400m with a PB of 49.62.

Un­beaten at her spe­cial­ist dis­tance of 800m since Septem­ber 2015, the 27-yearold is one of the most talked about ath­letes in the world. She is also one of the most con­tro­ver­sial as she has found her­self at the cen­tre of the

“WHEN YOU START SCHOOL, THAT IS WHEN YOU DIS­COVER YOUR TAL­ENT AND WHERE YOU BE­LONG. SO AT THE AGE OF SIX I RE­ALISED FOR THE FIRST TIME THAT I COULD DO WELL IN RUN­NING”

de­bate over gen­der test­ing and pos­si­ble med­i­ca­tion to re­duce testos­terone lev­els. Yet this has not stopped her be­com­ing one of the most pop­u­lar ath­letes in South Africa – and in­deed around the world – and her spon­sor Nike has fanned the flames of her fame re­cently by fea­tur­ing her in one of its lat­est shoe cam­paigns.

Semenya’s in­volve­ment in sport be­gan at an early age. “From the age of four I played soc­cer and had been run­ning around”, she says. “But when you start school, that is when you dis­cover your tal­ent and where you be­long. So at the age of six I re­alised for the first time that I could do well in run­ning.”

In 2008 she won the 800m at the IAAF World Ju­nior Cham­pi­onships and the fol­low­ing year an­nounced her­self to the world when, still only

18, she won the se­nior world 800m ti­tle in Ber­lin in 1:55.45. She re­calls that there was a lot of spot­light on her but her own ex­pec­ta­tions were much less.

“For me, com­ing from African ju­niors to Ber­lin, that is where re­al­ity hit,” she re­mem­bers.

“You are run­ning with the best in the world. I had never run with se­niors be­fore and cer­tainly not around the world. I was very in­ex­pe­ri­enced, so my main goal was just to get through the rounds. The fi­nal was hon­estly not in my mind be­cause I didn’t know if I would make the fi­nal. Once I was in the fi­nal, I knew I had a chance to win.”

She has two Olympic gold medals at 800m, won in 2012 and 2016, but the cir­cum­stances of her 2012 vic­tory are com­pli­cated by dop­ing de­meanors. In the Lon­don fi­nal the Rus­sian ath­lete Mariya Savi­nova fin­ished in first place, only to be stripped of her medal five years later.

In Rio, though, Semenya fin­ished first in 1:55.28 and she says of her Olympic vic­to­ries: “I will talk more about Rio be­cause in Lon­don I fin­ished in sec­ond place and it wasn’t the best race of my life as I couldn’t pro­duce what oth­ers ex­pected me to pro­duce. But Lon­don is part of my life, one of my fail­ures and I learn from it.”

She adds that “2016 was the best year my life”, ex­plain­ing fur­ther: “The main fo­cus was to win gold in the Olympics. At that time we were still run­ning tac­ti­cal races. We al­ways at­tacked from the back. So I knew that if I stayed and waited for the right mo­ment I would win the race, so it was no sur­prise.”

When asked about her dom­i­nance in the sport, she is quick to credit her coach. “As an ath­lete, it’s about the re­la­tion­ship you have with your coach. We be­lieve a lot in rhythm. Our train­ing has been solid and we have been con­sis­tent in ev­ery­thing we do. I think that is why I am run­ning bet­ter now.

“IN THE LAST TWO YEARS IT

HAS BEEN ABOUT REC­TI­FY­ING MIS­TAKES WE HAVE MADE IN THE PAST EIGHT YEARS. AS AN ATH­LETE YOU LEARN. WE’VE FOUND A WAY TO MASTER THE SKILL AND NOW IT’S JUST ABOUT EX­E­CUT­ING

AND BE­ING BET­TER”

“In the last two years it has been about rec­ti­fy­ing mis­takes we have made in the past eight years. As an ath­lete you learn. We’ve found a way to master the skill and now it’s just about ex­e­cut­ing and be­ing bet­ter.”

No one doubts Semenya’s abil­ity as an 800m run­ner – with three world ti­tles to her name – but, I sug­gested to her, her ver­sa­til­ity and prow­ess at 400m and 1500m may have sur­prised some peo­ple. “It’s all about know­ing how your body re­sponds through train­ing and know­ing how to man­age your body,” she says. “So it’s about feel­ing – I feel the rhythm and I ex­e­cute.

“It is very hard to be good in the mid­dle-dis­tance if you do not bal­ance speed and en­durance. That is what we are try­ing to do. The train­ing is not easy be­cause it re­quires a lot of things, a lot of load. But at the end of the day if you can put that to­gether you be­come great at what you do.

“The 1500m is a race I love and I will al­ways con­cen­trate on it but I try by all means to bal­ance speed. When it comes to 1500m it all de­pends on how we start the sea­son. If we are quick al­ready then it will be the 800m but if we are a lit­tle bit de­layed it might be more 1500m over 800m, so we make wise de­ci­sions based on how fast we are mov­ing in rac­ing. It is a choice based on the pace we run.”

Where does her blis­ter­ing speed come from? “When I was young, I was a sprinter,” she ex­plains. “The first time I walked on the track, I was a 100m and 200m run­ner, but be­cause of the lack of fa­cil­i­ties and coach­ing skills I de­cided to step off sprint­ing to do mid­dle-dis­tance, be­cause I thought even with­out a coach I could still train. So I think the speed just came nat­u­rally from when I was young and did a lot of sprint­ing.”

When it comes to the con­tro­versy that has dogged her ca­reer – from sex ver­i­fi­ca­tion tests in 2009 to the IAAF’s

2018 rules re­lat­ing to ath­letes with dif­fer­ences of sex­ual de­vel­op­ment (see panel op­po­site) – Semenya took to

so­cial me­dia ear­lier this year to share her point of view. “God made me the way I am and I ac­cept my­self,” she said. “I am who I am and I am proud of my­self.

“I just want to run nat­u­rally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that peo­ple ques­tion who I am. I am Mok­gadi Caster Semenya. I am a wo­man and I am fast.”

What­ever you think about the is­sues, no one can ques­tion the dig­nity with which she has con­ducted her­self. “Ev­ery hu­man has ups and downs and there are things that you can­not con­trol,” she says. “For me as a hu­man you have to learn how to be a good per­son, how to be a good hu­man. I had to learn how to re­spect other peo­ple. Over a pe­riod of 10 years I be­came a bet­ter per­son from the ex­pe­ri­ences that I have had as an ath­lete, from be­ing a teenager on to now, it has been a great jour­ney.”

She con­tin­ues: “I have been raised to re­spect peo­ple. It doesn’t mat­ter who re­spects me and who doesn’t. At the end of the day I had been taught to be a good per­son, even to those who hate.

“If some­one doesn’t like you, it is their prob­lem not yours. I am a Chris­tian. I be­lieve in the Bi­ble. What I read in the Bi­ble, that made me who I am to­day. I will not let hu­mans’ re­ac­tion change me. I can change my­self. When I read the Bi­ble I feel peace. That’s how I am. Re­li­gious faith helps a lot be­cause you know what is right and wrong.”

Two Olympic and three

World Cham­pi­onship gold medals may seem a good haul, but Semenya tells AW that she is far from fin­ished.

“I still have a long way to go. I still want to run two more Olympics,” she says.

“If you cal­cu­late two Olympics that takes you to about five world cham­pi­onships and 10 years, I think. I still want to run un­til I am 38 or 39. Those are the goals – two more Olympics and per­haps five more world cham­pi­onships.”

We see Semenya as an ath­lete but what is she like away from the track? “I like my own space. I watch sport. I fol­low sport a lot. When I’m not run­ning I will be play­ing with a ball or in­doors watch­ing movies.

“I like foot­ball, ten­nis, bas­ket­ball, golf, for­mula one, mo­tor sport – catch­ing up with all the sports. I’m an easy per­son to talk to. I love peo­ple. In my spare time I just chill.”

Semenya’s own foun­da­tion is also close to her heart and takes up plenty of time, as she ex­plains: “I have my foun­da­tion and my own club that I’m run­ning. My main fo­cus now is to de­velop young up and com­ing boys and girls. We are fo­cused on im­prov­ing sports fa­cil­i­ties and then try­ing to get achieve­ment in sport in terms of de­vel­op­ment.”

As an ath­let­ics writer I have al­ways known that Semenya was a great ath­lete and I had ad­mired how she han­dled the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing her. I found her an easy in­ter­vie­wee and clearly some­one who feels thank­ful for what she has achieved and is keen to give some­thing back to her com­mu­nity.

“AT THE END OF THE DAY I HAVE BEEN TAUGHT TO BE A GOOD PER­SON, EVEN TO THOSE WHO HATE”

Melissa Court­ney, Jess Judd and Katie Snow­den try to keepup with Caster Semenya as the South African sets about com­plet­ing a golden dou­ble at the 2018 Com­mon­wealth Games

Aura of in­vin­ci­bil­ity: Caster Semenya in­tends to com­pete in a fur­ther two Olympics and five world cham­pi­onships but will the new IAAF rules al­low it?

Olympic cham­pion: Caster Semenya has many ti­tles but so far the world record eludes her

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