The captain of South Africa’s women’s national soccer team was chatting with Caster Semenya at a Nike event in France earlier this year when the conversation took an unexpected turn.
The two-time Olympic gold medal-winning middle-distance runner told Janine Van Wyk that she sought a new challenge outside of track and field.
“She mentioned that she would like to start playing football,” Van Wyk told Yahoo Sports. “I politely invited her to come train when she felt she was ready to. I never thought that she was serious about it, but I guess I was wrong.”
The extent of Semenya’s interest became clear Thursday when she and Van Wyk jointly made a surprise announcement. Semenya has joined a South African women’s professional soccer club founded by Van Wyk and begun training in preparation for a 2020 debut, a strong hint that she may be ready to give up track and field after a decade-long legal eligibility battle with the IAAF.
“I am grateful for this opportunity and I appreciate the love and support I already get from the team,” Semenya said in a release posted to the Gauteng-based club’s website. “I am looking forward to this new journey, and hopefully I can contribute as much as I can to the club.”
Semenya’s pursuit of a professional soccer career comes at a time when her future in track and field is in limbo. The 28-year-old cannot defend her world title in the 800 meters later this month without taking testosterone-reducing medication following a rule change made earlier this year by track and field’s governing body.
The IAAF introduced the rule because it argues that women with naturally high testosterone levels have an unfair competitive advantage against their peers. The rule only applies to races of a distance from 400 meters to the mile, which has increased speculation it was specifically implemented to target Semenya.
Whether Semenya will continue to challenge the ruling or attempt to reinvent herself as a 5,000-meters runner is unclear at this point. A representative for Semenya did not immediately return an email from Yahoo Sports seeking comment and Van Wyk said she is unsure what Semenya’s soccer ambitions mean for her future in track and field.
“This is definitely a question for Caster,” Van Wyk said. “She is a very wise, hard working, ambitious woman. I have no doubt that she would still continue to pursue her running career until she feels she has had enough.”
If Semenya were to permanently trade her track spikes for soccer cleats, it would be the middle-distance running equivalent of Michael Jordan giving up basketball for baseball in his prime. Semenya has not lost an 800 meters race since September 2015, when the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport abolished the initial IAAF rule requiring her to take hormone-suppressing drugs to be eligible to compete.
Semenya’s credentials as a soccer player are modest by comparison. She last played soccer competitively in school growing up, though she has always displayed a passion for the sport.
When Semenya texted Van Wyk that she was “ready to give football a go,” the South African women’s soccer star invited her to train with her club. Semenya showed up on Tuesday and impressed her future teammates with her size, speed and raw talent.
CASTER SEMENYA JOINS JVW |— LimSportsZone (@LimSportsZone) September 4, 2019
Olympic Champion Caster Semenya has reportedly joined and registered by JVW FC owned by Banyana captain Janine van Wyk and will be playing in the Gauteng #SasolLeague. The 28-year-old started training with the team on Tuesday. #LimSportsZone pic.twitter.com/ZbJzS4pUtK
“It was quite strange to see her dressed in football gear but when she started to settle and get comfortable, I recognized the potential she has of being a great footballer,” Van Wyk said. “The fundamentals are there, but she needs time to adjust her body from being used to only straight line running to more football specific actions, which of course we will assist her with.”
Semenya cannot play for her new club this year because the player transfer window has closed for the current season. Van Wyk tentatively envisions Semenya in an attacking role in 2020, allowing her to take advantage of her word-class speed.
“Anyone would think that she would be lethal in attack with her speed,” Van Wyk said, “but we will see once she has had a couple of sessions with the squad.”
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