By Mark Etheridge
As has become customary of late it was Caster Semenya who captured the headlines as the African Athletics Championships hit day three of five.
Semenya sealed South Africa’s seventh gold of the championships after two on day one and four on day two. At April’s nationals she won the 400, 800 and 1500m titles.
The former world champion over 800-metres and 2012 Olympic silver medallist over the same distance, Semenya seared to an impressive winning time of 4min 01.99sec.
That was just short of two seconds clear of runner-up Rabab Arafi of Morocco (4:03.95).
It was yet another 2016 Olympics qualifying time for and exceptional close to Zola Budd Pieterse’s national record of 4:01.85, set in 1984, seven years before Semenya had even been born.
Semenya’s victorious saga was one of three golds for the South Africans as they also ran off with the two 4x100m relay titles.
The force of four… victorious relay quartet, Van Niekerk, Simbine, Erasmus and Leotlela are proudly South African in Durban.
The men’s side was made up of Wayde van Niekerk, Akani Simbine, Emile Erasmus and Gift Leotlela and the women were represented by Tamzin Thomas, Carina Horn, Alyssa Conley and Tebogo Mamatu.
Limpopo powerhouse Semenya has delivered Olympic qualifying times in the 400, 800 and 1500m but is still undecided on her Rio options despite talks of her doubling up for 400/800m. ‘We are not sure yet,’ she said. ‘I would love to do that (bid for a double) but it is up to the coach. I feel good for the 800m,’ she was reported as saying after her race on Friday.
The relay titles saw the men winning in 38.84sec, beating Cote D’Ivoire (39.98) while the women ran 43.66 to grab gold from Ghana (44.04).
The men’s 400m hurdles was expected to be one of the highlights as two-time Olympian LJ van Zyl and reigning Commonwealth champion Cornel Fredericks went head to head in the final.
But they were both left trailing, with neither managing to make the podium. Kenya’s Boniface Mucheru took the title in 49.25 while Van Zyl missed the podium by one position with a 49.46 finish.
‘I really wanted to win today but that last hurdle was a bit far in front of me again so I lost speed and momentum but I’m in very good shape, that I know,’ he told Road to Rio 2016. ‘It was just like my recent race in Stockholm.
Van Zyl in final action on Friday.
‘The thing is that if you have to stretch then you land after the hurdle with your shoulders back and then you can’t get away from the hurdle quickly enough and finish the race strongly.
‘So I’ve got a bit of work to do to make sure I’m good to go in Rio. But I’m not injured and as I said, in good shape.
‘Obviously I want to peak in London so it’s important to get things right. We’ve got seven weeks before Rio. Now my next race will be the London leg of the Diamond League.’
Coach Irma Reyneke, who has more 400m hurdlers in action on Saturday in the form of Wenda Nel and Youth Olympics champion Gezelle Magerman, wasn’t stressing over Van Zyl’s run.
‘Hurdles is unpredictable and that’s what makes it so interesting. LJ’s in great shape and must just be patient.
‘That race could have gone any way, they were all level over that last hurdle and we can only take positives away.’
As for Fredericks, that clock is also ticking for him to book his seat to Rio. He was sixth on Friday in 49.82, still 0.42sec off the official qualifying time and he has until 11 July to do that.
There were also two silver and bronze medal to go with the three golds.
Keagan Fourie went clear at 2.18m as Kenya’s Mathew Sawe won the high jump with 2.21.
Fourie flies to high jump silver.
And then there was silver for national 800m champion Jacob Rozani in 1:45.38 and bronze for Rynardt van Rensburg (1:46.15) in the 800m final.
Van Rensburg, who has already qualified once, in Slovenia last year, was also a bronze medallist in the World Student Games last year.
‘It was a real tough 800m as we know it. The pace felt too fast and I wanted to leave something for the last 200m.
‘I think I gave myself just a bit too much work for the last 300m. I had to start accelerating with 300m left just to get with them with 150m left.
‘I managed to dip for the medal at the end. I think the difference between me and the 4th place was just that I wanted it more. Leaders past 50 and I wanted to go I bit slower as I did but should have been a bit closer to them.
‘Missing the Q-time with 0.15 broke my hart. Its been a tough season and I wanted it so badly.
‘I’m still in top 30 world ranking for all the 800 qualifiers so I’m sure this bronze medal and 1.46.15 has proven my fitness for the Games.
‘At the end it’ a special achievement for me to win a middle-distance bronze medal at African Champs and I’m proud.’
Van Rensburg now heads to Europe next month where he has four races in the space of 10 days in the warmer conditions of Belgium.
In the women’s long jump there was a fifth spot for Lynique Prinsloo as she landed at the 6.20m mark as Nigeria’s Ese Brume won with 6.57m.
Meanwhile new African long jump champion Ruswahl Samaai says he knows the ‘big one’ is still coming. Samaai jumped 8.40m for a personal best in Thursday action but the tailwind was above the permitted 2m/sec mark.
‘I felt really good. The competition was good and competitive. I live for moments like that… competitive moments. Good competitions bring out the best in me.
‘The conditions weren’t good at all, although we had wind from behind,’ he told Road to Rio 2016. ‘It was a bit cold and I didn’t like the wind at all. A tailwind is good for us but we don’t want too much.
‘Overall I’m happy with my performance. I always strive to be consistent because I know at the end the big jump will come.’ Next up for the African and national champion is the Monaco leg of the Diamond League.
And new decathlon champ Fredriech Pretorius also came down from the high of being the continent’s best to share some thoughts with Road to Rio 2016 after his two days of competition. ‘My comp didn’t get off to the best start but it wasn’t too bad. I jumped the same distance twice in the long jump and was rewarded with a PB in the shot put.
‘Before the 400m my hamstrings were very tired but I just pushed through and still got a good time. My hurdling is starting to get better with time but as a result of the elbow op I couldn’t train much for discus or javelin and it showed as those were my two weakest items over the two days.
‘Then with a strong headwind in the pole-vault I still got a PB for the second week in a row after Gotzis, Austria.
‘In the 1500m I just had to push through, and hey, I was rewarded with a PB my more than three seconds. So overall I’m happy with my performance but my throwing and 400m showed that there’s still lots of work to do.’
Pretorius underwent a shoulder operation two weeks ago but was desperate to compete. ‘I’ve still got 10 stitches in the wound and in all honesty shouldn’t have ben doing anything for two weeks but so badly wanted to be here. I see the doctor next week to see about the pain that’s still there. For now I’m just going to rest, it’s still very sore. I’m looking at a competition in September but now now it’s just on with rehabilitation.’