Caster Semenya wins unprecedented triple at South African nationals
The former Olympian is the first to win all 3 titles at championships
Stealing the show from a reigning world champion, Caster Semenya won national titles in the 400, 800 and 1,500 metres and ran Olympic qualifying times in the first two events at the South African championships on Saturday.
Looking sharper than she has in years, the former 800 world champion set world-leading times in both the 400 and 800. Finishing with the 1,500, Semenya became the first athlete to win all three titles at the championships, and did it in the space of a little over four hours.
"The legs don't feel too much pain. I'll pay tomorrow," she said.
Even though it's early in the Olympic year, Semenya's performance in her favoured 800, which came less than an hour after her 400 race, suggested that she may again put a list of struggles behind her to challenge in Rio de Janeiro in August.
The competition may not have been strong, but her times in both the one and two lap races were: A personal best 50.74 seconds in the 400 and 1 minute 58.45 seconds in the 800.
"I'm quite impressed with the performances of tonight. I didn't expect to run like this, fast times like this," Semenya said. "The 400 and 800, it was just marvelous."
Her 1,500 victory was in 4:10.93, outside the Olympic qualifier.
In between Semenya's first two victories, world champion Wayde van Niekerk retained his 400 title in 44.98 seconds, also going under the South African qualifying mark for the Rio Games.
Van Niekerk cruised through the first 200 to win easily on the final day of the two-day meet in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town. He said he ran cautiously after feeling tightness in his back and hamstrings during his qualifying races on Friday.
"I'm just really pleased that I can leave the track feeling healthy and feeling confident again," Van Niekerk said. "I had quite a few challenges this weekend."
The 23-year-old Van Niekerk, whose victory was one of the big surprises of last year's world championships in Beijing, said he'd stay at home and train for the next six weeks before heading to Europe to race in June.
"Obviously the main goal is the Olympics and obviously I'll try and pick up the momentum," he said.
Shrugging off concerns over the short gap between the 400 and 800 finals, Semenya sped past her rivals on the last corner in the 400. It was her first South African title in the event. About 50 minutes later, she clocked another quick time — three seconds inside the South African Olympic qualifying time — to win the 800 by more than seven seconds.
Semenya is still young at 25. Her career has been tumultuous since she won the world 800 title as an 18-year-old in 2009 in a stunning 1:55.45. She was then suspended for nearly a year by the IAAF following gender tests. She returned to near her best to win silver medals at the 2011 worlds and 2012 London Olympics, but missed the 2013 worlds with injury. She failed to make the final of the 800 at last year's world championships following knee surgery and after twice changing coaches.
"Sometimes you've got to enjoy what you do," Semenya said Saturday. "I haven't had fun in a while."
Despite her quick time in the 400, Semenya said the 800 was the focus for the Olympics.