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‘From Zero to Hero’: The Queen Of The 800 meters Caster Semenya

Karen Mwendera

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Caster Semenya, the Olympian, on never quitting, come what may.

It is August 2009 in Berlin, Germany, at the finals of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships.

It’s the 800 meters race; among the eight female runners is 18-year-old South African Caster Semenya, in a yellow track top and green shorts.

Thousands watch from the pavilion, loudly cheering as they await the gun to go off.

In the fourth line, Semenya waits too, blocking out all the noise in her head.

She takes in a long, deep breath and says a prayer.

“On your marks!” shouts the referee.

The women crouch.

“Get set!”

“Bang!”

And the race is on.

The young Semenya from Limpopo, one of South Africa’s nine provinces, runs alongside some of the world’s most famous athletes such as Mariya Savinova from Russia.

In two minutes, a winner will be crowned.

In an impressive show of might and mettle on the track, Semenya sprints ahead of the others.

With long strides, she is the clear lead.

A competitor from Kenya, Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei, then manages to run ahead of Semenya. It’s a tight race as they lead neck-to-neck.

At the sound of a bell signaling they have reached the 400-meter mark, Semenya bolts ahead of the group leaving a wide gap between her and the others.

At 1:55:45, Semenya is officially the champion.

It is a big win for the village girl from Limpopo.

“Things just went from zero to hero, so boom! Zero to hundred. It was just great,” beams Semenya when we meet her for the interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.

At the end of the race, she does her signature move – the cobra – hands facing inwards and then outwards.

Holding the South African flag, she runs a few meters in a lap of honor.

Her country is proud, super-proud of its millennial daughter.

This match was the unforgettable milestone that launched the career of a simple girl from Limpopo on to the world stage.

Her name was soon going to be etched in gold.

Caster Mokgadi Semenya is the reigning Olympics and world champion in the women’s 800-meter race.

On a hot Monday morning in October, we meet Semenya in the leafy suburb of Greenside in Johannesburg, South Africa.

She arrives ahead of the appointed time with her wife Violet and her manager Becky Motumo. Her vehicle is number-plated ‘CASVIO’, an amalgamation of Semenya’s and Violet’s names.

That weekend, she had just returned from New York City, in the United States (US), where she received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation and from tennis icon Billie Jean King.

The ceremony was to award women who have extraordinary achievements in sport, and Semenya was one of the recipients.

As she enters the studio for our interview dressed in all-blue Nike apparel and sneakers, she greets everyone warmly.

First on the agenda for the day is makeup, something the sports star says she can never get used to.

“I like to be myself, I am true to myself. I just like myself the way I am and I don’t want anything to change in me,” says Semenya.

“With makeup, it’s the part I hate the most because I don’t like it. That’s not me, so it’s just something else. I don’t like it at all, I just do it because it is business,” she says, laughing.

Semenya opts for the natural look.

She says she loves the simple life, and has always been this way since her early years growing up in the small village of Ga-Masehlong.

As she readies, she reminisces those  years.

“Growing up in Limpopo was special to me, I’m a village girl,” she says.

“When you grow up in a big family, obviously, they appreciate you for who you are and everything you do. They support you. They don’t criticize your work, they just go with the flow and they want what makes you happy.”

Her family was extremely supportive of her love for sports.

Semenya started playing soccer at the age of four, on the street with her friends, and in the bush, where they would bet on matches.

“Actually, I was the best striker in the village [when it came to] street football,” she laughs.

“Everytime I got on to the pitch, everyone wanted me, so I was that kind of a kid.”

In a few years, the young Semenya traded in the football boots for running shoes.

“Before you can kick a ball, you have to run first. Football is all about speed, it is more about agility and how you can move.”

In grade one, Semenya was introduced to athletics and immediately found her feet as a sprinter.

But due to a lack of facilities and proper coaching at the school, she decided to opt for middle-distance running, instead of sprinting.

“With middle-distance, you can run anywhere you want and you can still perform. You don’t really need to be surrounded by mentors and stuff like that,” she says.

Semenya came to realize that she enjoyed running more than football and so traveled a lot to take part in competitions.

At the age of 12, she moved from living with her mother to taking care of her grandmother who was getting older.

“She’s a great human being. I am truly blessed to walk in her footsteps,” she says about her.

“She taught me more responsibility, how to take care of myself and how to take care of others. She also taught me respect, how to appreciate and how to accept others.”

Her grandmother supported her dreams to run, unaware then of how far it would take Semenya.

In 2007, at the age of 16, Semenya ran her first international race in Botswana.

Unfortunately, she was placed fifth and returned to South Africa defeated, but hopeful.

“From there, I discovered that there are a lot of things to learn and I need to focus more and concentrate.”

Semenya worked harder and pushed herself to become better than her competitors.

It was the beginning of her international career in sports.

From ‘zero to hero’

The year 2008 was her final year in high school.

 Semenya continued to compete whilst pursuing her studies.

She had qualified for the 2008 World Junior Championships held in Bydgoszcz in Poland in July that year.

She was one of two Africans competing in the 800m-race.

 Unfortunately, she didn’t make it.

Three months later, her luck changed.

She competed in the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India.

Semenya won her first international title with a record of 2:04, which was not bad for a 17-year-old.

It was a defining moment in Semenya’s career.

“From there, that’s when I knew this is my field. I need to be in command and I need to train hard. I need to be strong physically and mentally, and everything needs to be ready,” she says.

Since then, gold has become her color.

After the win and back to reality, Semenya went back to high school to complete her matric examinations – these were two fulfilling accomplishments for the young athlete.

2009 was a year of monumental change for Semenya.

The village girl moved to the big city.

She traveled 317km from Limpopo to Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, and enrolled at the University of Pretoria studying athletics science.

 While there, she trained under Micheal Seme, preparing for more career-defining races.

Semenya dedicated her time to intense  training, working on improving her running time.

She ran the 800 meters in two minutes and qualified for the 2009 IAAF World Championships, but due to lack of experience, she didn’t know much about her competitors who had been running for years.

“I knew what I wanted to achieve. It was all about running good times and back then, good times take you to winning big championships,” she says.

In July that year, at the African Junior Athletics Championships, Semenya won both the 800m and 1,500m races with the times of 1:56:72 and 4:08:01 respectively.

She had improved her 800m running time by eight seconds since winning the Commonwealth Games nine  months earlier.

She was the fastest runner worldwide for the 800m races that year. She had bested the senior and junior South African records held by South African female athletes Zelda Pretorius and Zola Pieterse, popularly known as Zola Budd.

But there was no time to lose.

Caster Semenya crosses the line to win the gold medal in the women’s 800 meters final during day five of the 12th IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Olympic Stadium.

Semenya continued to press on training to compete in the IAAF World Championship 2009 in August in Berlin.

She went on to win as a newcomer among some of the world’s best runners.

The long run to freedom

Back home, she brought more glory to the nation.

But as South Africa cheered and celebrated her, others had different plans for the teenage athlete.

At the time, news reports surfaced about the IAAF looking into the young athlete.

The reports suggested that they were conducting gender tests on her.

In a statement published by the IAAF in September that year, they declined to comment on the medical testing of Semenya but confirmed that it was indeed gender-testing.

“We can officially confirm that gender verification test results will be examined by a group of medical experts,” they said.

At the time, they were in discussion with the South African Ministry of Sport and Recreation and Semenya’s representatives, with the view to resolve the issues surrounding Semenya’s participation in athletics.

It was a dampening end to her year.

In November, the results came back.

They found Semenya to have high testosterone levels.

As a result, she was suspended from running and forced to sit on the sidelines.

Semenya’s response was released in a statement by her lawyers.

“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” Semenya said.

“Some of the occurrences leading up to and immediately following the Berlin World Championships have infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights.”

Reminiscing on the events that took place, Semenya tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA that she wasn’t and still isn’t worried about the IAAF.

 She will continue to run the race she started.

“Actually, I never thought anything about them. It was just all about me. What is it that I can control? Of course, if someone is or wants to do whatever they want to do, there is nothing you can do,” she says.

“So, I never think about such people. I always think about myself and what will benefit me… There’s nothing I can do about what organizations think and there’s nothing they can do about what I think.”

The case was complex.

 Media reports and critics questioned the ethics of their testing and their methods.

But Semenya was not the first.

 News items and academic reports suggest that sex verification tests at the IAAF started as early as the 1950s.

Dutch athlete Foekje Dillema was reportedly banned in July 1950 after undergoing gender-testing by the IAAF.

In more recent times, Dutee Chand, Pratima Gaonkar and Pinki Pramanik, all from India, have reportedly had to undergo gender-testing too.

But Semenya stood strong.

After her experience, she calls on all women to unite.

“I think we as women need to come together and support each other,” she says.

“Without that, you will still feel discriminated, you still feel oppressed, you still feel criticized in everything that you do and you will still feel like you are not recognized,” she says.

During this trying period for Semenya, back home in Limpopo, a 15-year-old girl from the small town of Westenburg was acting as Semenya in a high school play.

Caster Semenya.
Picture:
Motlabana Monnakgotla

Sevenah Adonis was finishing her grade eight at Hoërskool Pietersburg when she played Semenya for the year-end school concert.

It was also the same period Adonis first heard about the track star.

Semenya’s trial had inspired the young girl.

“My general perception of Caster Semenya  when I had just heard of her is that she’s a very fantastic athlete,” Adonis tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.

 “Limpopo is a very isolated place. There’s not a lot of exposure or anything, so for her to actually make it over the parameters of Limpopo is remarkable. I do look up to her and I aspire to go beyond my borders and accomplish things that she has accomplished,” she says.

Adonis is currently pursuing a degree in economics at the University of Limpopo.

The 22-year-old hopes to meet Semenya one day, but for now, she watches and cheers on her fellow Limpopo native making a global mark.

Back in Semenya’s world, July 2010 (after six months of being suspended) was when she received the news she had been waiting to hear.

The IAAF announced that she would be able to compete again.

“The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect,’’ they said in a statement.

The medical details and findings are confidential.

Despite the controversy with the IAAF, Semenya had been dubbed a hero by many for the way she handled the situation.

During the interview with us, she remembers what former South African President, the late Nelson Mandela, once told her when they met.

“Be the best that you can be,” he said to her.

“He just told me, ‘people can talk, people can do whatever they want to do, but it’s up to you to live for yourself first before others. So, the only thing that you can do is to be the best that you can be’,” she says.

It was the best advice she had ever been given.

Semenya returned stronger, winning every race and championship she entered.

“My goal is to be the greatest and there is nothing that anyone can do about it,” she says.

“I’m an athlete, I train and I perform. That’s me and that’s what keeps me going. I believe in myself and I trust myself and I’m always motivated. I’m a very positive person. So even if something comes in a negative way, I always find a way to put in more positive,” she says.

Semenya went on to win a silver medal in the 800 meters at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in 2011.

But it was in the year 2012 when she showed the world her true prowess on the track.

Leading the charge in London

Semenya was only 21 years old when she participated in her first Olympic Games.

“I was more mature then I think, but I didn’t have that knowledge of understanding my body; how to train myself, you know, to calm down,” she says.

But the prestige of the Olympic games excited Semenya.

It was the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics and Semenya carried the South African flag proudly in front of  thousands at the London Stadium (formerly known as the Olympic Stadium), while leading the South African Olympic team.

It was a proud moment for South Africans across the world.

Thousands and thousands cheered her on.

“It shows a great quality, especially more in leadership. So, I lead the team in and then, of course, I still have to go deliver because people look up to you. Your family, your friends, the entire nation. They expect you to perform,” she says.

One of the challenges she faced was not knowing whether all her training had been good enough for that moment.

She didn’t know what to expect.

“What’s going to happen in this championship? Am I going to win? Am I going to even win a medal?” she asked herself at the time.

“It was kind of the most stressful championship I have had in my life…” she says today.

It all came down to how prepared she was.

“When I walk onto that track, I perform. So, when I perform, I expect people to recognize my work but not just because I am me, but for the work that I do,” she says.

But once it was time for the race to take place, Semenya put all her worries aside and stayed focused.

“It is no longer about what happened last week. It’s about what’s going to go down now. We are more focused about it. It’s do or die,” she says. The pressure was on. Semenya was determined to win. Crowds in the stadium cheered waiting for the gun to go off.

“Bang!”

The runners started off.

Semenya began to pick up pace.

As she did, she looked back and saw the other runners catching up.

It was do or die.

“The main thing was to think ‘I have to keep going’. But my other mind was like ‘you have lost the race, there is nothing you can do’… But when you believe that ‘ok, I still have a chance for a medal’, you will just keep on pushing until you get the momentum.”

In the end, Semenya was placed second, behind Russia’s Savinova.

Semenya brought home silver.

It was a proud moment and South Africa celebrated with her as the whole world watched the new face of 800m.


Francine Niyonsaba and Caster Semenya. Picture: Adrian Dennis/ AFP/ Getty images

Francine Niyonsaba, an 800m Burundian gold and silver medallist, was a competitor alongside Semenya at the same race.

After meeting a few months earlier in Monaco, they had become friends.

“Caster Semenya is a good runner. She loves everybody and I think she is a very talented girl and an inspiration to all, especially African youth,” Niyonsaba tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.

Twentyfive-year-old Niyonsaba draws inspiration from her friend.

She says that the challenge women face in Burundi is that they feel they can’t achieve anything, elsewhere in the world.

“In Burundi, in our culture, women believe they cannot do something special in the world but it is just a mentality,” she says.

“A woman can do everything!”

Both Niyonsaba and Semenya are passionate about inspiring other women in sport and putting Africa on the map.

Caster Semenya reacts after winning gold in the women’s 800 meter final on Day 15 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium.
Picture: Adrian Dennis/ AFP/ Getty images

At the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio, Brazil, the two competed again.

This time, Niyonsaba won silver and Semenya won gold.

They met again at the 2017 World Championships in London and it was the same win again; Niyonsaba silver, and Semenya gold.

Despite the two always running against each other, Niyonsaba says on the track, Semenya has been very encouraging towards her and the others.

“As an African, she is trying to do something special. She is an exceptional girl, because you know as women in Africa we are afraid to do some things. So, Caster Semenya is trying to show everyone that women can do everything,” says Niyonsaba.

‘I don’t see myself

stepping down’

After bagging world titles and beating records, what else is on the cards for the sports star?

For Semenya, there’s no stopping her and she plans to stay on in the sports industry.

“I don’t see myself stepping down; until  I’m 40, that’s when I’ll be satisfied.”

Semenya plans to become the greatest middle-distance runner in the world and she plans to break more records.

Back home, in Pretoria, she has been running the Caster Semenya Foundation aimed at coaching and equipping children who are active in sports.

The foundation currently trains 20 children aged 12 years and older.

She plans to expand it to other parts of the country.

“My main goal is to empower women and help other young men to be better in future,” she says.

“You have to show them first that education is important and we balance it with sports. If we can perform both sides, I think we will be fulfilled,” she says.

“Education never stops, you keep on learning every single day.

“Without education, your decision-making will be weak… when you are educated, it becomes very easy to make decisions and decide what is the next step.”

In 2018,  she received her diploma in Sports Science from North-West University.

But she hasn’t stopped.

She is currently pursuing a degree in Sport Management at the Tshwane University of Technology.

It has been a big year for the athlete.

In September, she joined the Nike ‘Just do it’ campaign for its 30th birthday.

It featured some of the greatest athletes, the likes of tennis icon Serena Williams and former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, with each bringing social issues to the fore.

In October, she became the ambassador of Discovery Vitality.

In November, she won big at the South African Sport Awards. She took home the People’s Choice Sports Star Of The Year; Sports Woman Of The Year, and the Sports Star Of The Year.

She was also nominated for the 2018 Female World Athlete of the Year at the IAAF Athletics Awards in December.

With all her accolades and achievements, as her star continues to rise, what about her finances?

During the interview, when asked how much she is worth, the village girl from Limpopo simply smiles and says, “I’m just priceless, to be honest.” 

‘She Is So Humble; Does Not Sweat The Small Stuff’

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