Natalie du Toit: ability of mind

12 September 2012

When Natalie du Toit announced her retirement from competitive sport on completing her programme at the 2012 London Paralympic Games, she did so not only as the most successful South African Paralympian of all time, but as one of the most important figures in the history of disability sport.

She was a trailblazer, who raised the bar and showed what was possible for people with disabilities by also competing successfully against able-bodied athletes.

Accident ‘only increased my determination’

Back in 2001, still a teenager, Du Toit was one of the rising stars on the South African swimming scene, having narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when she was involved in an accident on her scooter when returning from a swimming practice.

Her left leg was amputated below the knee, but that didn’t keep her down, and she ended up encouraging tearful family members while recovering in hospital – and within a few months of leaving hospital was back in the swimming pool.

In an interview with William Rowland published on Disability World in early 2004, Du Toit said that her accident had only served to increase her determination. Back in the pool within four months after her operation, she spent the first week swimming alone.

‘It’s important to swim your own race’

“After a week I started with the squad, but in the first lane”, she told Rowland. “It was not nice seeing little babies beat you; so I just had to train harder … get up with the guys … get up with the seniors … get back to the level I was swimming at before.”

Du Toit switched to longer events – from 200m and 400m individual medley to 800m and 1 500m freestyle – to make up for her loss of speed with only one leg. She especially struggled with starts throughout the rest of her career, but she made no adjustment to her mental outlook.

“There’s really no line between able-bodied and disabled swimming … I treat both of them the same. They’re your opponents and you’ve got to race the way you train. It is important to swim your own race and not someone else’s,” she said.

2002 Commonwealth Games

The year after she had part of her left leg amputated, Du Toit was back in action and participating in a major event, the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England. She was 18 years old at the time.

She qualified for the 800 metres freestyle final – the first time in history that an athlete with disability had qualified for the final of an able-bodied event – and also won gold in the multi-disability 50m and 100m freestyle, both in world record times.

At the closing of the Games in Manchester, she was presented with the first David Dixon award for the Outstanding Athlete of the Games – a unanimous choice ahead of Australia’s Ian Thorpe, despite his winning six gold medals and setting a new 400m freestyle world record.

After the Games, she was also awarded the Western Cape Golden Cross. During the awards ceremony, then Western Cape Premier Marthinus van Schalkwyk said she had gone “beyond gold and swam her way into the hearts of not only South Africans but the whole world”.

In 2003, she swam in the All-Africa Games against able-bodied swimmers and won gold in the 800 metres freestyle. At the Afro-Asian Games in the same year, up against able-bodied swimmers once more, she took silver in the 800m freestyle and bronze in the 400m freestyle.

2004 Paralympic Games

The following year she took part in the Paralympic Games in Athens. South Africa won 11 medals in the pool, six of them gold, four silver and one bronze. Du Toit was responsible for five of those gold medals and a silver medal.

Swimming in the S9 class, she raced to victory in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle, the 100m butterfly and 200m individual medley. She also took second place in the 100m backstroke.

In a television series aired on the national broadcaster, SABC, in September 2004, she was in 48th place on the list of 100 Greatest South Africans, four places ahead of 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games double gold medallist Penny Heyns.

In 2005, she won three gold medals at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester. The following year, at the 2006 International Paralympic Committee World Swimming Championships in Durban, Du Toit won six gold medals, including an incredible third place overall (men and women) in the five-kilometre open water event.

2008 Olympic Games

While she had conquered the world of disability sport, she still had a burning desire to compete in the Olympic Games, which she had first dreamed of as a young child. In August 2008, Du Toit achieved her goal when she became the first amputee in over a century to compete in the Olympics.

She booked her place in the Games in May of that year when, needing to finish in the top 10 to qualify for the Olympics, she finished fourth in the 10-kilometre race at the World Open Water Swimming Championships in Seville, Spain. She crossed the finishing line only five seconds behind the winner, Larisa Ilchenko, who went on to win gold in Beijing.

Despite a disadvantage that some likened to a kayaker paddling with a single-bladed paddle, she earned her place in the biggest sporting event of them all, where she went on to finish 16th.

She made more history in Beijing by becoming the first athlete to carry her country’s flag at the opening ceremonies of both the Olympics and Paralympics.

2008 Paralympics

At the Beijing Paralympic Games that followed, Du Toit won all five events she entered – the 100m butterfly, 200m individual medley, 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, and 400m freestyle.

She was also awarded the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, which is presented at every Paralympic Games to one male and one female who best exemplifies the spirit of the Games and inspires and excites the world.

Du Toit’s selection for the award spoke volumes about the inspirational role she had taken on, not just for disabled people, but for able-bodied people also, throughout the world.

In 2009, she was accorded the highest honour her country could award her with when she received the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold “for her exceptional achievements in swimming.”

Laureus award

In March 2010, she became the second South African after Ernst van Dyk to be named the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability.

“It’s people like Natalie that provide the incentive for the youngsters to aspire to greatness”, said South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee president Gideon Sam. “She fully deserves this acknowledgement.”

Later that year, she was the most outstanding athlete in the International Paralympic Committee’s Swimming World Championships in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. She won six gold medals, one silver and one bronze medal. Only three countries bettered her personal haul of six gold medals in women’s events.

To put an exclamation point on her excellence, she ended on a high by dominating the five-kilometre open water swim, finishing six minutes and 26 seconds ahead of the second placed Elodie Lorandi of France.

Not only did she finish first among the swimmers in classes S1 to S10, she also bettered the best time swum by a man in the event: one hour, one minute and 13 seconds, which was posted by Australia’s Brendan Hall!

‘I gave everything’

The 2012 London Paralympics were Du Toit’s swansong. She admitted she was not at her best, but she remained classy throughout despite taking on a big programme of seven events.

Even then, she emerged as the most successful South African athlete of the Games, winning gold medals in the 400m freestyle, 100m butterfly and 200m individual medley. She also added a silver medal in her last race, the 100m freestyle.

After that last event, she told reporters: “I look back and realise I gave everything in the pool and gave everything as a person. It’s time to move on. I’ve no idea what’s next.”

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