Caster Semenya, a new kind of hero


Olympic Gold medallist, Commonwealth Games champion, and Discovery Vitality Ambassador, Caster Semenya, talks about the new dawn of personal values in sport – By guest author Gus Silber

Mokgadi, they called her. In her language, Sepedi, it means ‘the one who guides.’ She knew, even at an early age, that she was destined to lead, to drive, to run the race of the swift and strong.

Football was her first love. In her home village in rural Limpopo, she played in the men’s division, for a team called Try Again FC. She would get dressed away from the boys, but she never felt different or like an outsider. She felt accepted.

At school, she was equally adept at baseball, a home run hitter, so fleet of foot that her coach, Mr Maseko, who everyone knew as Boss, took her aside one day and told her about the great athletes of the world – the champions, the Olympians – and how so many of them came from Africa. ‘Caster,’ he said, using her middle name, ‘I think you can be better than any of them. You are fast and fearless, and you can do anything you want. It’s up to you.’

Even the chosen must choose

Even now, sitting at the Discovery headquarters in Sandton, she jolts her head back at the memory. ‘Who, me?’ Her voice is deep and earthy, like thunder rolling on the horizon. She taps herself on the chest, and her golden map-of-Africa pendant jitters. Then she shrugs in acceptance, re-enacting the scene: ‘Okay.’

She knew, back then, that she could not do everything, so she calculated with a cool head that her prospects of becoming a world champion on the football pitch were negligible. But on the track? Well… maybe Boss would turn out to be right.

I ask Caster how it is possible, when you are the best in the world at something, as she is in the women’s 800 metres, to retain your humility. It’s simple, she says. ‘I am human. I am just like you. I breathe the same air…’ She draws a finger along the vein on her forearm. ‘I bleed the same blood. When I walk down the street, I am Caster Semenya. When I step onto the track, I am an athlete. When I win, I am a champion. Then it’s done, and I walk out, and I am Caster again. It’s like wearing a mask.’

“I feel like we are the ones who are delaying our opportunities. No-one is there to block you. Work hard, learn, and educate yourself. Simple.”

Sport as a metaphor for everyday striving

The gods on Mount Olympus, so the story goes, sent humans down to earth as messengers of their divinity. That’s how sport began. But these lesser gods were coded with fragility and vulnerability to make the challenge harder and the victory sweeter.

Sport is a metaphor for everyday striving, and what we learn from the struggle is that the best of us are just like the rest of us. What sets the professional athlete apart, perhaps, is a reservoir of self-belief, the idea that they have it somewhere deep within them to beat their ultimate rival: themselves.

The holy grail is the PB, the Personal Best, and for Caster, right now, that is 1 minute, 54.25 seconds for her signature race, the 800 metres. One day, she will beat that. She is the fourth-fastest woman over that distance in history, and the gap between her and Number One is tantalisingly less than a second.

A deep sense of self-belief

It is something of a triumph that Caster is able to run in international competition at all, given the ‘gender verification’ controversy that kept her off the track for almost a year after her astonishing victory, beating her PB by a full eight seconds, at the 2009 IAAF Athletics World Championships in Berlin.

She has endured rumour, innuendo, clinical testing, ridicule. But always, she has found solace in the anchor of her faith, her belief in God and her ancestral spirits – ‘I’m not choosy,’ she says – and the roots of the village where she was born... Ga-Masehlong, in Limpopo. It is this deep sense of self-belief that featured in Caster’s powerful Nike Just Do It ad in September 2018.

From her parents, Dorus and Jacob Semenya, she inherited the genes of sporting talent – her dad played football, her mom, netball – but their real gift to her was the freedom to choose her own path in life.

“Your strength lies in your ability to cast the weight off your own shoulders.”

‘What defines you is how you rise up’

‘You can never apologise for who you are,’ she says. ‘When you are born, you are born. If you’re a baby girl, you’re a baby girl, if you’re a baby boy, you’re a baby boy. You are introduced to the village, and it doesn’t matter how you look. That doesn’t define you. What defines you is how you rise up.’

As a teenager, before she became a professional athlete, she had one burning ambition: she wanted to join the army. What branch, I ask. ‘Special forces,’ she says. ‘Or maybe secret agents, because I love guns. I love army movies. Maybe I’d be a sniper, I don’t know.’ Now, instead, to the crack of the gun, she runs.

Caster grins, a broad and easy smile that skews the chiselled symmetry of her face. But it is a shy smile too, as if she can’t quite believe that she is in her own shoes. While growing up, she sensed she was destined for greatness, now that she’s famous, she craves and celebrates the balm of domesticity – the quiet home-life with her wife, Violet Raseboya, who is also a middle-distance runner.

‘Fame to me is nothing,’ says Caster. ‘It’s just a weight. What comes first is me being happy for who I am and how I live.’ In her blue track-pants and top, she is at ease with herself, at ease with her body.

Courage of the Cobra

When I first catch sight of her in the lobby, the thing that strikes me is the regal grace and self-assurance of her walk. For a moment it seems odd – is this really Caster? – but then I realise it’s because we are so used to seeing her on the sprint, her arms and legs a blur, and a few blinks later, standing in her victory pose, biceps flexed, hands pointed sideways.

‘The famous Cobra,’ she laughs. ‘It comes from, when I am racing, you mess with me, and you are poisoned. Sometimes I’ll move with you, and then when you relax, I’ll move away from you, just like that!’ She clicks her fingers, crosses her arms and whisks the stardust from her shoulders. That gesture of deflection, of untouchability, is a mark of how she has handled public criticism, discrimination, and mockery over the years.

‘You go on Twitter and you make like, oh, she looks like a man… At the end of the day, who cares? Those words are useless to me. Is that what you want to do with your life, commenting on Twitter, talking nonsense? You should be learning from me, asking, how does she draw her mental strength, how does she achieve and conquer? It’s because I work hard and I believe in myself.’

‘That’s how we as a new generation need to live’

This is a reminder of her guiding value as a sporting role-model and ambassador: your strength lies in your ability to cast the weight off your own shoulders. I ask Caster whether she sees obstacles in the way of this ideal, particularly for young South Africans like her.

‘I don't think young people have obstacles,’ she says, ‘because they have rights to do anything they want. I feel like we are the ones who are delaying our opportunities. We are the ones who are not working hard enough. We have access to free education, we have bursaries. No-one is there to block you. Work hard, learn, and educate yourself. Simple.’

She sets the example, with her diploma in Sports Science from North-West University, and her current studies in Sport Management at TUKS. ‘That’s how we as a new generation need to live,’ she says. ‘We must forget about the past and move on. Because if you hold onto the past, you can never go anywhere.’

Bettering our Personal Bests

I look at my notes. There is a question my daughter has insisted that I ask, because she is a long-distance runner, and Caster is her hero. So I ask: do you ever feel nervous that you won’t get any better than your best? Caster smiles. ‘I never worry about if I will never get better. I only worry about if I get injuries.’

And then she gives me what amounts to a personal, practical mini-dissertation on the science of looking after your body and getting to know your limits, so that I can pass it on. I take this as a sign that when your belief in yourself is strong enough, you move beyond self-belief to become selfless: you no longer have secrets to hide.

You share what you have learned, you give of the gift you have been given. You are the One Who Guides, and for the rest of us, watching from the stands, the lesson is that we too, second by second, can find a way to rise up and better our own Personal Best.

Caster Semenya joined the Discovery Vitality Ambassador family in October 2018, alongside South African Olympians Chad le Clos and Wayde van Niekerk, as well as the members of Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka. She was invited to speak as a thought leader at the 2018 Discovery Leadership Summit, where she addressed over 3 000 delegates on the purpose of personal values in sport and how to grow a generation of women athletes.

Caster helps us inspire South Africans to get healthier

Discovery is proud to sponsor a healthier South Africa. As a Discovery Vitality Ambassador, Caster Semenya embodies our values through her passion for sport: by inspiring young people to understand the importance of healthy lifestyle choices and physical activity, and by being a powerful role model for future female athletes.

Through strong partnerships and involvement in numerous events, we’re able to promote health and wellness in communities across South Africa. Our core focus is on sports-related events that foster mass participation in an accessible way. Learn more about sportspeople and events we sponsor here.

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