17 Questions With Caster Semenya
27-year-old Caster Semenya is a force to be reckoned with. In August 2017, Semenya won gold in the 800 metres and bronze in the 1,500 metres at the World Championships in London in August. It was her third World Championship gold medal at 800m, an event she currently dominates.
She is also the reigning 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games champion at the distance. Recently, she has also been nominated for the 2018 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Award which takes place in Monaco on Wednesday, 28 February 2018. We caught up with South Africa’s shining star ahead of the event.
Congratulations. Can you tell me what it means to be nominated for a Laureus Award?
What I can say, it’s a dream come true. You know, as an athlete, obviously we have goals, we have dreams, but this is one of the dreams that I dreamed, you know, from young, watching sportsmen and sportswomen on top of the world, being nominated, and then say one day, if I can be there, I will be fulfilled.
Is a Laureus Award more special because Laureus Academy Members include great athletes like Michael Johnson, Seb Coe, Edwin Moses?
It’s very special to be selected amongst the best in the world. So you know, when you check the likes of Michael Johnson, for me, it’s a very special feeling. It’s someone that I looked up to since I’m watching what he has accomplished. It’s just amazing.
Also nominated with you is a group of very famous sportswomen: Serena Williams, Katie Ledecky, Allyson Felix, who you will know, Mikaela Shiffrin, plus tennis player, Gabine Muguruza. What do you think of those names?
Those are great sportswomen. Great in what they do. I respect their work. I follow their work. They are phenomenal. They are strong. What I can say, I have one word for them: They are fantastic. I feel blessed, privileged to be amongst a list of great women like that. So what I can say is may they keep working hard and God bless them. Being nominated with the best, I feel like I am a winner already.
You will remember forever the World Championships in London. What is the best memory of that great 800 metres run?
I think the last 200 metres when I attacked. I watched it over and over, how I executed the movements, especially on my last 60 metres. It’s unbelievable, you know. It shows the hard work that we put in. Always God is great, if I may say, because I feel like I’m a living testimony of God and I’m a message out here for the young kids who cannot be able to do what they want to do, reiterating that voice for them. For me, you know, it’s very special and I can never forget it. I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life.
Looking back, can you pick the greatest moment in your career?
I would say that Rio [Olympics in 2016] is one of my highlights, and obviously back then [at the World Championships in 2009] was the first time I made it to the scene. So those were the highlights of my life. But if you were a young girl, you know, I had to grow. I had to be mature. I had to find a way how to make decisions and how to make right ones and how to pick the wrong ones and take them out. I think winning in 2009 and winning in Rio are the best moments of my life, I can never forget.
When you began your athletics career, did you ever believe that you would do as well as you have?
I think for me it was never about winning. It was about enjoying what I do, and then obviously winning comes along and then getting faster also comes along. But for me, it’s just all about being on the track, being free, being what I love. I feel free when I run. I think I was just doing it for the love of sport, nothing else. But obviously when you see that you can win, and then you start working very hard so you can maintain the winning streaks and all those medals, everything, the accolades, the awards and everything.
What are your next goals in 2018?
I’ll start with Nationals, middle of March, and then obviously we will have the Commonwealth Games where I will also try the double again, so I can be able to win two golds. That is the main goal. And then we still have African Champs and the World Cup.
Are you looking forward already maybe to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020?
Yes, of course. That’s the build-up. We take a step at a time. I’m an athlete that works more in the short term goals. Obviously every month we see how we can improve our fitness, how we can improve our biomechanics and how we can improve our breathing and everything. So, yes, Tokyo, I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be 29. So it will be probably my last Olympics, 800 metres, I don’t know. But yes, if I can still go faster, you never know where you can end up. But yes, I’m very excited. It will be my third Olympics. I’m looking forward to it.
If you won another gold medal that would be historic. Nobody has won three Olympic 800 metres gold medals before.
To me, it will show that anything is possible if you believe. So for me, also I’m doing it for the little kids in Africa, especially where I’m coming from in South Africa because our middle distance is not that strong. I just want to show that if you believe, if you work hard, you can achieve anything that you want in your life. If you set up your goals and then wake up and make it happen, you can be the greatest of them all.
With you and Wayde van Niekerk, this is a great time for athletics in South Africa?
In our generation, we have matured into a great sprinting and middle distance runners. I think the coaching clinics that our federation do, have done a lot of work in terms of development. So, I think we are very hungry to achieve. We noticed that we know that we have this opportunity so we need to use it. Also I think we are as united as ever, because if you can check this new generation, we are always together. Motivation is very high. If you check also the quote of late Nelson Mandela, sport has got a way to inspire the world, and you have a way to change the world, also. That’s how we build things. We support each other as much as we can. We motivate. We do a lot of things together, and also, our coaches, you know, they have grown big.
Are you and Wayde friends?
Yes, we’re very, very good friends. We’re like brother and sister.
Do people in South Africa recognise you in the street and come and say how pleased they are by what you’re doing?
Yes, they are inspired. They love what we do. We give back to them, interacting with them, giving them what they want. They want the love. That’s all they need from us, so we hang out with them, if we have time. Yes, it’s great. If you see how when we are on track, how people react, it’s just love.
Did you have a role model in track and field who inspired you?
I looked up to the late Mbulaeni Mulaudzi. He came from Limpopo, the same province. He’s coming from the east. I come from the west. So I used to watch his races. I wanted to be like him. Of course, Edwin Moses, Maria Mutola, but in South Africa, I looked up to Mbulaeni.
Was there a crucial moment when you thought you could be a champion?
Yes, of course. For me, coming from a rural area, I played soccer, and then I realised that balancing athletics and soccer, it can never work. That’s when I won the Commonwealth Games. When I won that, when I was able to defeat the best in the world, it gave me hope and belief. So I told myself that if I get the chance to be in the Olympics, to be in the World Championships, I’ll use that opportunity to become the best.
Do you have a strong family that supports you?
Yes. We have a big family. My dad used to play soccer. He used to be a good runner. My mom played netball. My sister used to do athletics, but obviously, you know, as kids, we have our own choices. My brother is now playing football and I’m trying to get him to be a professional. So the support is very high. They are the most supportive, my family. The love that they have for me, the love that I have for them, the bond is very hard to explain. Sport runs in our blood.
One of the important elements of Laureus is not just celebrating the great sporting successes, but also the work it does to help disadvantaged children through sport, especially in South Africa.
I love their work. I love to get involved as much as I can. I’ve already established my foundation. I would be focused on improving sports facilities, abundant ones, and then trying to get achievement in sport in terms of development. So getting involved with them, I hope they will notice me or take me and adapt me as one of their own. So they are doing fantastic work, what I can say to them, just keep on doing that. It really helps a lot, especially for the kids that are coming to the rural areas where they don’t have any facilities. They don’t have sport equipment. They don’t have running shoes, they don’t have soccer boots. They don’t have clothing and stuff like that. It touches me to see all that they do. So I just want to be involved so I can make changes in the other kids lives.
From what you have said, you obviously believe that successful sports stars like you have a duty to give back to those less fortunate?
Yes, it’s very important, because there are kids that look up to the athletes. You know, giving back doesn’t mean money. It’s not money. It’s not material. But even if I go to the rural areas and see how these kids train, how they live, it means a lot to them. It means you care. So I think for all sportsmen and women, we should do that and encourage kids so that we can take them off the streets because they know that if Caster Semenya can come to my place and see what I do, see how I live life, it’s possible for me to get out of this place, be the best in the world. If we can all do that, I think we can change the world.
This telephonic interview was conducted by the Laureus World Sport Awards Committee.