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Caster Semenya talks 800m world record, goals, meeting LeBron James

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As Caster Semenya appealed a planned rule change that could impact her dramatically, she put together one of the fastest middle-distance seasons in track and field history.

In an interview last week, the scrutinized Olympic 800m champion from South Africa declined to discuss her in-process legal challenge to an IAAF rule that would force female runners in her events with high testosterone to reduce those levels starting next season.

“I’ve been advised to stick in my lane,” Semenya said before receiving the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award at the Billie Jean King-founded Women’s Sport Foundation’s annual salute in New York City. “I cannot say anything about it.”

The IAAF expects a hearing in Semenya’s case in February with a verdict by March 26.

In 2009, when Semenya won the world 800m title by nearly 2.5 seconds at age 18, word leaked that track officials mandated she undergo sex testing. The IAAF had gender-verification testing in place until 2011, when it was replaced with a test for abnormally high levels of natural testosterone.

In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) suspended the IAAF’s regulation, ruling that it lacked sufficient scientific backing and was therefore unjustifiably discriminatory. CAS is also handling Semenya’s appeal to the current proposed rule change.

Semenya has never spoken publicly in detail about her situation. It has never been publicly verified that Semenya’s body naturally produces abnormally high levels of testosterone or that she ever took hormone suppressants.

What’s clear is that Semenya is looking forward to competing next season.

This past spring and summer, she clocked the three fastest times of her life in each of the 400m, the 800m and the 1500m (breaking 1:55 for the first time).

Semenya is now the fourth-fastest woman in history in her primary event, the 800m, and .97 of a second slower than the questioned world record set by Czech Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983.

It’s hard for Semenya to gauge her chances of closing in on the longest-standing record in the sport (assuming her legal challenge holds up).

“But if you are a half-second or a second away from a world record, then you think, OK, there are things that I’m doing right,” she said. “The most important thing is being consistent. When you run 1:55, 1:54 consistent, it shows that you can do better than that.

“Also when you run 400 meters under 50 [seconds], then you can run [the 1500 meters] under four minutes, it shows you still have more in the tank.”

Semenya broke those time barriers for the first time this spring and summer. She finished the season ranked No. 1 in the world in the 800m, No. 4 in the 400m and No. 9 in the 1500m, rare versatility.

She said she would rather win a fourth world title at 800m next year than break the world record. The 400m is also very much in her plans.

“If we can run almost 49 low next year … then we’ll know we’re ready to do anything at 800 meters,” she said. The only women to break 49.5 since the Rio Olympics are Rio gold medalist Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas and world silver medalist Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain.

World records clearly are important to Semenya.

She said her favorite race was not at an Olympics or world championships, but a 600m in Berlin in August 2017. She took nearly a second off the fastest time ever in the event, which is not on the Olympic program and thus is listed as a “world best” rather than a record.

Semenya returned to Berlin, also site of that eye-popping 2009 World title, for another highlight last month. She ran the world’s fastest 1000m in 22 years and met LeBron James.

“He just told me, keep on doing what I’m doing,” Semenya said. “He inspires me. I inspire him. It was just more for exchanging words when greatness meets greatness.”

NBC Sports’ Seth Rubinroit and NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.