Caster Semenya heads the class of 2018

It will also be remembered as the year Tatjana Schoenmaker made waves in the Commonwealth pool

23 December 2018 - 00:03 By DAVID ISAACSON

Caster Semenya continued her dominance of the 800m this year, but showed she's also competitive in the two distances on either side.
Semenya started the year winning the 800m-1500m double at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, where she also broke Zola Budd's 1500m mark from 1984 in the process.
She lowered that to under four minutes several weeks later, and ran her last 1500m race in Lausanne in July, where she ended sixth, though her time was quicker than Budd's mark. However one looks at it, her 3min 59.92sec best was good enough to rank her ninth in the world for 2018.
Meanwhile, she was ripping up the 800m, improving her SA record to 1:54.25 and then still breaking 1:55 twice more.
Outside of the 800m, Semenya picked up the 400m in the second half of the season, winning the African Championships and finishing second at the Continental Cup as she clocked 49.62 to break the SA record Heide Seyerling had held since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
And if all of that wasn't enough, she also clocked the fifth-fastest 1000m yet.
But Semenya's biggest battle loomed off the track, with the International Association of Athletics Federations introducing new rules for athletes with hyperandrogenism. They were supposed to kick in on November 1, but Semenya is challenging these at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland and the introduction date has been set back to late March 2019.
Semenya is challenging the rules which will apply to all three main events from 400m to 1500m.
But it wasn't all bad for Semenya off the track. With the decision to strip 2010 Olympic 800m champion Mariya Savinova of the gold being upheld, Semenya won her second Olympic gold. With her gold from Rio 2016, she becomes the first SA Olympian to win two consecutive Olympic golds.
The looming court hearing hasn't derailed Semenya's ultimate goal - to break track and field's longest-standing world record.
Jarmila Kratochvilova of the old Czechoslovakia clocked 1:53.28 in July 1983. Nadezhda Olizarenko of the Soviet Union is the only other woman to have broken the 1:54 barrier, having gone 1:53.43 at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Semenya has some mountains to climb in 2019. Anyone willing to bet against her?
Hekkie Budler made South African boxing history as he captured the country's first Ring magazine belt in 68 years.
His victory over Japan's Ryoichi Taguchi in May also earned him the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation junior-flyweight titles, making him the first local boxer to win three mainstream belts in one shot.
Not since Vic Toweel won the undisputed world bantamweight title in 1950 has a South African been awarded the Ring magazine belt, given only to unified champions these days.
It's a feat that not even SA ring greats like Brian Mitchell, Dingaan Thobela, Sugar Boy Malinga and Vuyani Bungu achieved.
His victory ignited fierce debate over who SA's greatest boxer was, and while Budler is unlikely to be considered the best of all time, he's carved out his own unique piece of history.
And it couldn't happen to a nicer man.
Budler is still the same humble guy who made his professional debut in July 2007, and he and wife Roxy live well within their means in a house in the working-class suburb of Newlands in western Johannesburg.
That's where he spent most of his youth and it's where his heart remains, despite winning a total of 11 belts as a professional.
Admittedly, some of them are not as meaningful as the ones he holds now, but six of them are world belts.
Budler started out at junior-flyweight, but dropped down to strawweight before returning to junior-flyweight for his latest success.
His triumph is also a tribute to trainer/manager Colin Nathan, who organised the shot in Japan and then developed the strategy for victory.
Budler's ability to listen to instruction and execute the plan, as well as his heart, were the other ingredients of this victory.
Budler was dropped in the 12th round, but he got up and saw out the round, and the hard work he'd put in during the earlier rounds were enough to secure the win.
He joined a small but impressive list of SA boxers to lift world titles despite getting dropped, notably Arnold Taylor and Malinga. And his stablemate and sparring partner Moruti Mthalane joined that group a few months later while lifting the IBF flyweight crown in Malaysia.
Akani Simbine had a breakthrough 2018 by winning the Commonwealth Games and African 100m crowns. They were the first major international titles of the sprinter's career, but he still has more to do.
Fifth at the 2016 Olympics and fifth at the 2017 World Championships, he ended fifth in the Diamond League final in 2018. He broke 10 seconds on four occasions in the season, managing a best time of 9.93. But in competition in Europe and the US he didn't do better than second or third place. Simbine will be looking to make the next step up.
Moruti Mthalane finally recaptured his IBF flyweight title after scoring a points win over Pakistan's Muhammad Waseem in Kuala Lumpur. Mthalane was stripped in 2013 after he refused to defend the belt for a pitiful purse.
He lost some of his best years to inactivity, which has been tragic given his ability. Mthalane had gone unbeaten since losing to Filipino Nonito Donaire on cuts in late 2008. He mastered everyone he fought since then, including Zolani Tete in 2010. Now 36, he's quickly looking to make up for lost time.
Tulani Mbenge won the International Boxing Organisation's welterweight title in convincing fashion against Diego Chaves of Argentina in June, chopping him down in the seventh round.
It was a vast improvement on his previous performance when he struggled to cope with Mexican spoiler Diego Cruz in March. And he again won inside the distance in his first defence, seeing off another Mexican, Miguel Vazquez.
Not all fans are sold on Mbenge, but when his big break comes against the big names of the division, he will probably give a good account of himself. He should be ready in a year or so.
Rowers Kirsty McCann and Nicole van Wyk started rowing together only this year, and they were good enough to take silver at their first World Cup regatta in Belgrade in June. They slipped to fourth in a more competitive field at the third World Cup of the season in Lucerne in July.
Don't worry that they didn't win medals; they are on to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at the 2019 World Championships. McCann, a veteran of two Olympics, and Van Wyk, who has just graduated from under-23s, have the drive to close the gap on their rivals.
The mercurial Chad Le Clos stretched his lead as SA's most prolific Commonwealth Games medallist in Gold Coast. He went to Australia level with Roland Schoeman on 12, and left there with 17 - just one short of the all-time record of 18, held by two shooters.
Le Clos also became the first man to win all three butterfly races at the games, over 50m, 100m and 200m. Then he ended the year in spectacular fashion. OK, he lost the 200m 'fly gold at the World Short-Course Championships, but he beat US star Caeleb Dressel to win his fourth consecutive 100m butterfly crown.
Tatjana Schoenmaker exploded on the international scene when she took the 200m and 100m breaststroke double at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast. She first won the longer race and then, in spite of a painful niggling injury, took the shorter race as well. Winning games titles doesn't always mean much on the world stage, but in Schoenmaker's case, they did.
Her 1:06.41 for the 100m saw her finishing the year ranked joint 10th, and her 2:22.02 for the 200m was good enough for fourth.
The last South African woman to win an Olympic swimming medal was Penny Heyns at Sydney 2000; Schoenmaker will be the nation's best bet to end the poolside drought.
SA has never won an Olympic wrestling medal, but Martin Erasmus could change that, giving much-needed hope after winning the 97kg gold at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
As it was, his triumph in Australia gave SA its first Commonwealth gold in 60 years. Erasmus won all four of his matches by technical superiority, including the final against India's Mausam Khatri.
Erasmus, a car parts salesman from Brakpan, isn't a big talker, preferring to make his statements on the mat.
Cameron van der Burgh had a busy 2018 - he got married, relocated to London and then planned his retirement. But that didn't stop him enjoying a stand-out season in the pool.
At the Commonwealth Games in Australia in April he upstaged British favourite Adam Peaty to win the 50m breaststroke crown.
And then he bowed out in style at the World Short-Course Championships in China this month, snatching the 50m and 100m breaststroke gold. A fitting end to a stellar career in which the 2012 Olympic champion medalled at all 10 editions of the World Championships in which he competed.

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