By: Keith Moore
ABOVE PHOTO: South Africa’s Caster Semenya is surrounded by fans in Lappeenranta, eastern Finland on Thursday, July 15, 2010. Semenya won her first race since being cleared to return to competition after underdoing gender tests. The 19-year-old South African won the 800 meters in a modest time of 2 minutes, 4.22 seconds on Thursday at the low-key Lappeenranta Games.
(AP Photo / LEHTIKUVA / Roni Rekomaa)
LAPINLAHTI, Finland — Caster Semenya insists her times will get better. For now, she is running — and winning — again and that’s what’s important to her.
The South African who dazzled at last summer’s world championships before becoming ensnared in a gender dispute resumed her low-key return to competition Sunday. She won a second straight 800-meter race in Finland in a time far slower than her world title run last August in Berlin.
“The race was pretty hard, the pace was fast for me,” Semenya said. “It helped me to run a faster time, so I’m quite happy with the performance.”
She cruised to victory at the Savo Games in her second race since was cleared to continue competing as a woman. She finished in 2 minutes, 2.41 seconds — almost two seconds faster than Thursday’s comeback race at the Lappeenranta Games. Still, she was seven seconds slower than her national record of 1:55.45 at the 2009 worlds.
Semenya appeared relaxed before Sunday’s race on a blustery day in the town of less than 8,000 people, 280 miles north of Helsinki.
She was in full control against a weak field. Britain’s Marilyn Okoro, who might have offered some competition, pulled out before the race. Sofia Oberg of Sweden was a distant second in 2:04.27 and Anna Verhovskaya of Russia was third in 2:04.41.
Semenya said she lacks power, and her coach, Michael Seme, agreed.
“The speed is not there. It’s still a long way,” Seme said. “But it’s going according to my plan.”
Semenya will return to South Africa to train. Her manager, Jukka Harkonen, said Semenya will be back in Europe in August for meets, although he wouldn’t offer details.
Semenya said her coach expects her to have times of 1:56 or 1:57 by then. She hopes to contend for an 800 gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, which begin Oct. 3 in New Delhi.
During her 11-month layoff while she underwent gender testing, Seme and Harkonen tried to shield the 19-year-old. The meets in Finland helped to gently reintroduce her to the spotlight, as well as to competition.
“I’m pretty happy with the performance,” Semenya said. “Starting with 2:04 and 2:02 is good.”
Harkonen said the trip to Finland worked “100 percent,” although he thought Sunday’s wind made Semenya’s run difficult.
Semenya’s muscular appearance and dramatic improvement in times when she won the world championship gold in Berlin prompted gender tests by track and field’s governing body. It’s unclear if Semenya underwent any treatment during her 11 months away. But after months of negotiations between her lawyers and the IAAF, she was allowed to run as a woman.