Caster on track and loving life
Johannesburg - South African runner Caster Semenya seems to finally be enjoying life again after a tumultuous two years in which the high of world championship glory was offset by the low of questions over her gender.
As she sat in a hotel meeting room on a rainy Thursday afternoon, the 800m world champion was able to reveal a lighter side to her character after months of intense scrutiny and doubts about her femininity.
"I can do anything I want in any sport except swimming," the 20-year-old University of Pretoria student said. "It's been a long time since I swam."
For parts of 2009 and 2010, it was also a long time between competitive running for Semenya.
An International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) gender investigation had kept her off the track for more than 10 months before she was cleared to compete again in July 2010.
"I would not call it a nightmare because I survived," Semenya said of the forced hiatus. "But seeing other people running when I wasn't was a little bit frustrating."
It would not have destroyed her never to have competed again, Semenya said, but it would have been depressing.
"Running is everything to me." she said. "When I am running, I am happy."
She tried soccer, even karate and boxing at a younger age, but running became her passion.
"Running is different," she said. "You are chasing something you do not see, you are just running."
She does a lot of that these days as training intensifies for her title defence at Daegu, South Korea in August.
It means life is normal again, said Semenya, who is in Oregon to run an 800m in Saturday's Prefontaine Classic Diamond League meeting.
Her times need to drop dramatically to match her world championship run of 1:55.45 in Berlin two years ago, but she has confidence they will come.
"I think I can defend my title, but it depends on the concentration," she said. "I cannot say I am fit physically, but mentally I would say I am fit."
There is even talk of adding the 1,500 metres for a middle distance double at the 2012 London Olympics.
Generally, the reception has been positive since her return last year and the passage of new eligibility rules by the IAAF in April.
"I don't think about other athletes," she said. "What people say or do not say, you cannot rely on those things."
Her coach, Michael Seme, saw early on in 2009 when they began working together that Semenya had the qualities of a champion.
"You can become a world champion if you can take the pain," he said. "Most of the runners say, 'Yes I can run,' but when you give them the (training) programme and they see the pain, they drop out."
Semenya never gave up, even going off at times to cry the pain hurt so much, Seme said.
"I noticed she was not a quitter," her coach added. "Even if she was the last person in a race, she passed the finish line."
Her ambition is to continue competing for another 10 years, or as long as she continues to improve.
"I cannot say I am good (yet)," Semenya said.