EUGENE, Ore. — Chrishuna Williams has never raced against Caster Semenya, but she has watched video of the dominant South African this year.
“I notice how her first lap, she like sits behind,” Williams said after finishing third in the turbulent U.S. Olympic Trials 800m final, earning a Rio berth on Monday. “Then her last lap, she just takes off. … That’s something I’ve never seen.”
Williams, a 23-year-old who shifted from the 400m to the 800m in 2015, is one of three U.S. women, and everyone else, who are overwhelming underdogs behind Semenya in the two-lap race in Rio.
Williams ran a personal-best 1:59.59 in Monday’s final at Hayward Field, getting on the three-woman team for Rio by .04 of a second over Molly Ludlow.
Winner Kate Grace also had a personal best, 1:59.10, after not racing on the track in 2015 due to tearing a toe-joint tendon. Grace had never made the podium at an NCAA or U.S. Championships and didn’t decide to run the 800m (in addition to the 1500m) at Trials until two or three weeks ago.
Ajee’ Wilson, the fastest woman in the world in 2014, was second to Grace in 1:59.51. Wilson, who turned professional after high school in 2013, grabbed third place at the 2015 U.S. Championships while running with one shoe on. She withdrew from the world championships team six weeks later due to a stress reaction in her left tibia.
The unlikely trio of Grace, Wilson and Williams emerged Monday from a chaotic last 200 meters that doused the hopes of six-time U.S. champion Alysia Montaño and Brenda Martinez, the only U.S. woman to earn an Olympic or world 800m medal since 1988.
The 800 meters is the shortest track event where runners (sprinters from the gun, in the case of some) are not separated by lanes for the entire race.
“There’s going to be casualties,” Wilson said. “It sucks when it’s you.”
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Yet few expect Semenya to draw that kind of misfortune in Rio.
Semenya, best known for a gender-testing scandal after winning the 2009 World title at age 18, re-emerged this year with her fastest times in five years. The sudden revival came after a July decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that suspended for two years a 2011 IAAF ruling that regulated women’s testosterone levels for competition eligibility.
Semenya, who was kept out of competition by the IAAF for 11 months in 2009 and 2010 while undergoing gender tests, has performed well at various times before the 2011 ruling, during the regulation period (2012 Olympic silver medal) and now without the regulation.
While the Americans ran in the 1:59s on Monday (and no faster earlier this year), Semenya has clocked no slower than 1:58.26 at her last four meets. Semenya is undefeated in 10 800m races this year and, in the higher-profile ones, has appeared to win comfortably without requiring full effort.
As Williams hinted, Semenya hangs back for the first lap (the first 700 meters, really) and shows her cards for, at most, the final 100 meters. In Doha. In Rabat. In Rome.
The world record of 1:53.28, set by Czech Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983, is talked about as under threat. Semenya has also clocked personal bests in the 400m and 1500m this year, though they aren’t quite medal-caliber times. Her coach said in May there was no plan to add a second individual event in Rio.
Of Grace, Wilson and Williams, only Wilson has raced against Semenya. Wilson finished higher than Semenya in their first three races — all during Semenya’s down years in 2013 and 2014 — and then was dusted by the South African in Rome on June 2.
“I don’t really remember much of it,” said Wilson, who ran 2:03.33 (her worst international time as a pro) to Semenya’s 1:56.64 and was the last finisher of 11. “I was kind of off my game myself. It was kind of like, I was watching the race from second-hand anyway.”
The philosophy against Semenya is the same against anybody. Run to win, Wilson said.
“If I need to be in 1:56, 1:57 shape, then that’s what we’re going to do,” Wilson (personal-best 1:57.67 from 2014) said, pausing before adding, “regardless of who’s in the race.”
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