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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Believe in yourself, Caster

Believe in yourself, Caster

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1 Believe in yourself, Caster on Mon Apr 02, 2012 3:29 pm


ProTrack Star
ProTrack Star
Former women's 800m champion Maria Mutola is convinced her protégé can break the oldest world record in track and field, writes David Isaacson

MARIA Mutola knows how to hunt down destiny. It took her four tries before she finally won the Olympic gold medal she deserved.

As the new coach of Caster Semenya - South Africa's best medal hope at the London Games this year - Mutola believes an even greater destiny awaits her 21-year-old protégé.

"I think she's way ahead [of me]," says Mutola, arguably the greatest women's 800m runner of all time. "She ran 1min 55.45sec when she was 18." Mutola, at the same age, had yet to break two minutes. "If there wasn't that [gender row] problem she had there [in Berlin in 2009], she probably would have been 1:51, 1:52 right now," Mutola told the Sunday Times in a track-side interview this week.

Semenya smashed her rivals at the world championships three years ago, but instead of being fêted, she was hounded out of the sport and subjected to gender tests.

Critics reckon she'll never go as fast as she went in Germany, although the 1:56.35 she clocked for the silver medal at the 2011 world championships in South Korea was a respectable retort.

Mutola, 39, believes the biggest obstacle lies in Semenya's own mind. "She just has to motivate herself, believe in herself again that she can run those fast times. It will take one race for Caster to believe. She'll come back to 1:55 one day, then she will start believing again that she can go faster.

"When you run and things are not happening, it's difficult. I think she believes she can go faster, but myself, sometimes I have doubts, too, if she believes in herself. So I'm here to motivate her and make sure she believes she can go faster."

The fall-out from the gender controversy - rivals likened her to a man - still lingers. Most noticeably, Semenya remains media-shy.

When the runner arrived for training and saw her coach in an interview, she said with a smile, as she walked on by: "Not for me."

Mutola understands. "It's difficult for her with the media because the only question [they ask] is 2009.

"She's a normal person when she's with her friends, when she's training. When the training's not going well she gets upset, when training's going good, we joke.

"Two days ago the training went very well and we joked about it, saying today it has to be even better."

Mutola has a maternal approach and she stands out from other coaches on the Tukkies athletics track. Most are clad in tracksuits or shorts, standing stationary as they oversee their athletes.

Mutola, in her designer jeans and stopwatch in hand, runs the last 30-odd metres with Semenya during her 100m sprint sets. Then she trots off to record the time in her notebook and returns for another sprint.

Mutola took over as Semenya's coach after last year's world championships, though they've been friends since Berlin. "Back then we became friends talking about the problem. Since then we've been talking on and off. Last year she decided she wanted to train with me.

"This is only my first few months training Caster, I'm only getting to know her. I'm not quite there yet, but everything's falling into place."

Their primary goal this year is the London Games. "If she can win in her first Olympics, it will be perfect," says the Mozambican, who competed in her first games at the age of 15 in 1988. Inexperience cost her a medal in 1992 and illness felled her four years later.

"By that point I had won everything but Olympic gold. When Sydney 2000 came around my coach told me, 'Maria if you don't win this year, you're going to retire with no Olympic gold. You must take this as your last chance.'

"I know it's not easy. But she [Caster] is motivated, she's training well."

Mutola believes that Semenya is capable of breaking the women's 800m world record - the oldest mark in track and field, Jarmila Kratochvilova's 1:53.28 from July 1983.

"You need a perfect race with the perfect people in it. This being the Olympic year, I'm sure people will come out ... to motivate each other. [Kenya's] Pamela Jelimo is running well again and Caster, too."

Jelimo is the reigning Olympic champion, boasting a personal best of 1:54.01. "If those two can be willing to race and let it go, maybe that will happen," says Mutola, whose career-best 800m was 1:55.19.

"Myself," she recalls with a laugh, "I tried a few times but I wasn't successful."

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