20 August 2008
Natalie du Toit made history when she took to the water in the women’s 10-kilometre open water swim at the Olympic Games in Beijing on Wednesday. The South African became the first amputee, along with Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka, to take on able-bodied athletes in the biggest sporting event of them all.
In Partyka’s case, her right arm ends just below the elbow, but she plays left-handed. In Du Toit’s case, she is missing her left leg below the knee and must thus do without the propulsion that the left leg provides other swimming competitors with.
Du Toit booked her place in the Olympic Games by finishing fourth – just five seconds behind the winner, Larisa Ilchenko of Russia – in the 10-kilometre event at the World Open Water Swimming Championships in Seville in May.
After the amazing result in Spain, Du Toit was hoping for at least a top-five finish in Beijing. She stuck close to the leaders for most of the race, but fell off the pace near the end to finish in 16th place, this time more than a minute behind Ilchenko, who carried her form through to win Olympic gold.
The South African’s disappointment with her Olympic result reflects her mindset, which doesn’t allow her to consider herself as someone with a disability; because she competes against able-bodied athletes, no allowances are made for her disability.
Du Toit had her left leg amputated below the knee after a motorcycle accident in 2001. At the time, she was one of South Africa’s leading swimmers and had narrowly failed to qualify for the Olympic Games in Sydney the previous year.
Within a few months of leaving hospital she was back in the swimming pool, always with the goal of swimming in the Olympic Games, something which she had wanted to do since the age of six.
Now that she has achieved that goal, Du Toit will no doubt quietly set her sights on winning a medal at London in 2012.
After Wednesday’s race she confirmed she would be aiming to qualify for the Olympics again. It seems as if she has been around for ever, but Du Toit is 24 years of age and 28 years of age, which she will be four years from now, is a good age for a long-distance swimmer.
Following her race in Beijing, Du Toit said she gave it her all. As she has done throughout her career, she provided a positive message by encouraging all people – able-bodied and disabled – to work hard, set goals, and never give up.
Her favourite saying, which can be found on her website, reads:
“The tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goals;
The tragedy of life lies in not having goals to reach for.
It is not a disgrace not to reach for the stars,
But it is a disgrace not to have stars to reach for.”
The other open water competitors were full of praise for South Africa’s flagbearer.
Johannesburg-born Keri-Anne Payne, a three-time winner of the Midmar Mile and the silver medallist in Beijing, called Du Toit “incredibly strong” and “an amazing role model”.
Bronze medallist Cassie Patten, third in the 2006 Midmar Mile, added: “It just shows what you can do if you put your mind to it.”
The race winner, Larisa Ilchenko, told a press conference: “”I’d go so far as to award her a separate medal. I have enormous respect for her. It is exceedingly hard. Just looking at these people inspires you.”
Du Toit, though, told reporters: “I don’t want anything free. For me it was important to actually qualify on merit.
“I’ve gone out there, I’ve done my best. I’ve still got the Paralympics (next month), so I still have to keep focused. I could only do that on the day, and that was my best.”
The Beijing Paralympics start on 7 September, and Du Toit is sure to be one of the stars of the show; in 2004, in the Athens Paralympics, she won five gold medals, with four of her victories coming in world record time.
Reflecting on making it to the Olympic Games, she said: “You don’t have to be the champion. You don’t have to be the best. But if you reach that dream, that’s the realisation that’s important to you.”
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