caster cool despite hype

OTHERS might be placing heavy hopes on South African middle-distance sensation Caster Semenya, but the 18-year-old will have none of it.

OTHERS might be placing heavy hopes on South African middle-distance sensation Caster Semenya, but the 18-year-old will have none of it.

A month ago Semenya was hoping for nothing more than to crack the two-minute barrier in the 800m at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin.

And with less than two weeks to go before the global showpiece, her goals have changed, but only slightly.

Despite clocking 1:56,72 to win the African junior title in Mauritius at the weekend - the best time in the world this year by more than a second - Semenya still doesn't consider herself a medal favourite in Berlin.

"I'm looking to run 1:56 again, and if I do that I'll be happy," Semenya said yesterday. "But my goal is to make the final."

Perhaps nobody has told the youngster that a time of 1:56 is likely to earn her a medal against the best in the world, but keeping herself grounded is what Semenya does best.

Her season got off to a snail's pace when she placed fifth in the first Yellow Pages Series meeting in Potchefstroom in January in a poor 2:09,9.

And she showed no intention of peaking too early. A week later she was seventh in Pretoria in 2:13,0 and a fortnight down the line produced a magnificently disappointing 5:15,54 over 1500m in Port Elizabeth.

But then the legs got turning. She has gone unbeaten in seven finals since and has become the talk of the middle-distance world, forcing last year's 800m sensation, Kenya's Olympic champion Pamela Jelimo, to take a back seat.

After winning the Yellow Pages meeting in 2:03,7 in Stellenbosch in February she produced a stunning 2:00,58 in Germiston, breaking Zola Budd's 25-year-old South African junior mark by 0,32 seconds (the record is still awaiting ratification).

Instead of taking the more popular route by accepting lucrative offers on the European circuit, Semenya chose to stay at home and focus on championship events. She won the national senior 800m title in Stellenbosch in March and finished second behind Lebo Phalula over 1500m in a personal best 4:16,43.

Two weeks later, unsurprisingly, she had little trouble winning both national junior middle-distance titles and in early May added the Southern Region Senior 800m gold to her rapidly growing CV. But it was in Bambous last weekend where she made heads turn around the world.

And while she also won the metric mile in Mauritius - improving her career best by more than eight seconds - Semenya will stick to the 800m in Berlin where she will do well to absorb the pressure she is likely to face as the fastest in the world this year. She's fresh, however, and she's reaching her peak at the perfect time.

"I'm feeling good man," she said yesterday.

And if she keeps her head on straight over two laps in Berlin, which she's proved she's mature enough to do, she'll be feeling even better when she steps off the podium with a medal around her neck. - Sapa