PARIS – Dressed in identical grey and black hoodies, Caster Semenya and her coach Samuel Sepeng proved to be the ideal travel companions to set the scene for the Paris Diamond League meeting over the weekend.
Sepeng, the brother of 1996 Olympic 800m silver medallist Hezekiel, had an arduous journey from OR Tambo to Charles de Gaulle Airport in the French capital.
It all started when he politely told a mother of a young child that he did not mind sharing a row of seats with them. His civility would haunt him as the child’s cries during the 10-hour flight would linger long after the plane had touched down.
To add insult to injury, the early-morning arrival is slap bang in the middle of Parisian rush-hour traffic.
But being stuck in traffic with Semenya and Sepeng, who often doubles up as her training partner, provided some insight into the life of the three-time world champion.
It is Semenya’s first time back in Paris since 2011 when she raced to victory in a modest (2:00.18) at Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of the city. Still young and naive Semenya did not visit the Eiffel Tower, it just did not fit into her list of priorities at that point.
Her return will be different, and although she treats her athletics visits to foreign destinations as strictly business, she vowed to return home with a photo of the famous landmark as a backdrop.
While Semenya speaks passionately about the sport she loves she takes a clinical and measured approach to her profession.
She pretty much parachutes into Paris to do her business on the track before jetting off to the next Diamond League meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Semenya is a different athlete since the last time she raced in Paris, she is much more conservative when selecting her races. She runs with purpose and a bit of caution to ensure her body does not break down like it did back in 2014.
The conversation shifts from making a deeper impact in the sport to the lactic sessions she has to endure to get her in dominating form.
The shift is more like a quantum leap as we find ourselves two weeks back in time in the icy early-morning air of Klerksdorp. The infamous ‘Telephone Hill’ in Klerksdorp is apparently riddled with tales of vomit-inducing sessions.
Broken egos include that of England's four-time Olympic champion Mo Farrah.
While the one-kilometre plus curving hill has brought grown athletes to tears Semenya boasts about conquering the beast.
This weekend she will again take a stab at breaching the one minute, 55-second mark, a task that seems a bit more daunting than ‘Telephone Hill’.
* Ockert de Villiers is attending the Paris Diamond League courtesy of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)