In 2009, the name Caster Semenya was on everyone’s lips. Her unexpected and remarkable win at the African Junior Championships – where she set both a national and championship record – in Caster’s own words, “shook up the world.” While the public was tripping over themselves in an attempt to define her, the young runner from Limpopo offers up the simplest designation of herself: “I’m Caster Semenya,” she smiles, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m an athlete, I’m an easy person, I just go with the flow, you know.”
There is an honest simplicity about her. Smaller in person and far less physically intimidating than she appears on TV, she is lithe and slender, not an ounce of fat visible upon her toned frame. Confident and self-assured, she firmly shakes the hand of everyone she meets, holding their gaze. It’s hard to believe that the woman before us is the same girl who was so mercilessly taunted by the media that she was forced into hiding.
While the furore around her 2009 win – instigated by the IAAF’s misconduct – was entirely unwarranted, it did seem as if this little girl from rural Limpopo came out of nowhere. With no coach, she trained herself, running barefoot for hours at the tracks in her village. Armed with a steely determination and an impenetrable belief in herself, her achievements at the games truly were her own.
Just nineteen years old when her picture was splashed across front pages around the globe, lurid headlines publicly questioning and disrespecting her humanity, a feebler woman would have crumbled beneath the pressure. But when prodded regarding the controversy that shrouded what should’ve been one of her proudest moments, Caster is more than pragmatic: “It’s life, man,” she shrugs. “You can’t expect it to be perfect.”
As she positions herself before the camera – her impressive physique encased in a black vest and tights – the focus and resilience that has secured her place in South Africa’s history books is evident. After each shot, she promptly resumes her position – ready to try again, prepared to make her next move better than the last. This is how she approaches every challenge: by picking herself back up and getting right back to business.
Caster has left the past exactly there. She harbours no ill will, only fierce ambition. Discussing her future plans to win gold at the Olympics, she strokes a barely visible tattoo on her shoulder: the Olympic rings with the name ‘Cas’ below it, it is a permanent reminder of her promise to herself. Failure does not feature in her future. “If they couldn’t shut me down in 2009, what makes them think they’ll shut me down now?” she says, not a trace of irony in her voice. Looking straight into the camera, she shrugs one last time.