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Masai AC

Caster Semenya talks her vision for uplifting youth in Soweto through sport

Forging a space in the Johannesburg township where kids can train like professionals, Nike Shapa Soweto is tearing down barriers to entry – here, the Olympic track star explains how and why she’s fostering the next gen of talent

Nobody represents defying the odds and harnessing the power of sport for social change quite like two-time Gold Olympic track star Caster Semenya. Born and raised in South Africa, Semenya has gone on to win a plethora of medals including three world championships in the 800m. Now, she is using her platform to support the next generation of talent through sport.

Masai Athletics Club, which Semenya co-founded along with her wife Violet Raseboya, has a simple ethos: ‘First you build the human, then you build the athlete, and then you build the leader.’ Masai AC has teamed up with Nike Shapa Soweto to make this their new training spot and a place to find community and support.

Based in the heart of Soweto Johannesburg, Shapa Soweto is Nike’s new training centre, designed to support a new generation of athletes, change makers, and culture lovers. The centre, which includes a 400m track, dance and training studios, football pitches, and a skate park, will now give the kids of Masai AC the chance to train like professionals.

Below, Caster Semenya talks about fostering a free and safe environment for young people within the community to try new things and daring them to dream and to reach their full potential.

Why is it so important for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access sport?

Caster Semenya: Access to sport is so important because it is the start of hope and belief. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds lack resources, but when they can access them they are able to fulfil their dreams and achieve what they know they can. Dreams become true and life becomes easier. This is the most important thing, and why we are putting back into the community – allowing more kids to access sport through facilities so they can live up to their dreams.

In what ways do you think sports can change a young person’s life in Soweto?

Caster Semenya: Shapa will help change their lives as it will take them away from the streets and allow them to focus on their future. Giving kids the opportunity to educate themselves through sport about self-awareness and discipline. Sport can be where their future begins. 

What barriers do young people in Soweto face when accessing sport?

Caster Semenya: We do not have proper infrastructure and little access to facilities. I think Shapa is what we needed. And now that we have it, kids will be able to surround themselves with the right people and structure. Before there was never anything like it and now the resources are less limited. This place is for all, so it is going to be easier for young people to access sport. Not having a place to train was the main barrier we faced as young people.

Why is education just as important as athletics? 

Caster Semenya: Education is as important as athletics because education helps build a human. It helps you understand how the world works, how to structure yourself and your life. It allows you to understand what you have and how to implement it, and what you can use to become a great human being or athlete. It will always play an important role because it betters your mental strength and plays a vital role in balancing everything that you are, and you do. 

What are you most excited about when it comes to having a Masai AC training grounds at Nike’s Shapa Soweto?

Caster Semenya: Kids will be able to come train and feel like they are professionals. They don’t have to stress about training on poor surfaces. They can access professional tracks, which is where dreams can begin. We can go there any time we want and enjoy. Before, we were just utilising any ground we could to train, but now we can go to sleep every night knowing tomorrow there is a place to call home for training. I’m also excited about the expression on their faces when they know they have access to this amazing facility. We can’t wait to start training at Shapa!

“Motivation comes from the respect I have for myself, the love I give to myself – I appreciate and accept myself for who I am” – Caster Semenya

How do you stay motivated in the face of adversity?

Caster Semenya: Motivation comes from the respect I have for myself, the love I give to myself – I appreciate and accept myself for who I am. That’s my motivation each day, when I wake up I look in the mirror at what reflects there, and it’s the definition of me. I carry that along with me everywhere I go. So what motivates me is to be myself every day and then just take it as it comes.  

What advice do you wish you had heard when you were growing up about having a career in athletics?

Caster Semenya: Someone telling me if I want to achieve anything it is all about work, dedication, and discipline. But the most important thing is to love what you do. Have passion for what you do, as it will allow you to fulfil anything. I wish I would have gotten that advice on day one. 

What would you say to encourage girls who are considering giving up the sport they love?

Caster Semenya: Appreciate yourself, love yourself, and accept yourself first before anything else. Don’t listen to what other people say or to other perceptions. Understand why they are doing it. Self-love, understanding, and knowing the person you are helps you to stay doing the sport you love. 

What are your hopes for the future of Masai AC?

Caster Semenya: To be consistent in each and everything we do, to make sure our infrastructure is well-run and that we develop to big numbers so we are able to produce great future athletes and leaders. We hope to set an example to those from disadvantaged communities so they can look up to Masai AC and say, ‘Because of Masai AC I was able to achieve this and that’, and ‘I am who I am because of Masai AC’. To maintain the work we are doing, it is not to be competitive. Then we live up to our words.

Find out more about Shapa Soweto on Nike News