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Spirit carries Natalie du Toit to the Olympics


Natalie du Toit lost her leg in 2001, but worked so hard that she has qualified for the Beijing Olympics, writes Rohit Brijnath


Natalie du Toit speaks with the speed of a woman who has somewhere to go, owns a musical laugh, and is proof of the athlete’s desperate chase of a dream. As a six-year-old who had just learnt to stop hating water, she dreamt of going to the Olympics. Now, 18 years later, when the women line up for the 10km open water swim at the Beijing Olympics, she’ll be there.

She will be hard to miss because she will be the only one there with one leg.

Natalie du Toit’s left leg is amputated through the knee. Look at it, it’s okay, she is used to it. On the phone from South Africa the other day, we spoke of it. Never has an athlete with such a disability qualified for the Olympics, and it’s understandable you will look at her leg.

But eventually, get over the leg. It is part of her, yet she is more than it. She’s not interested in your sympathy, she is not bridging some divide between abled and disabled athletes. She sees herself as just like all those other 10,000 odd men and women who are coming to the Olympics. She’s just “an athlete trying to get better.”

What du Toit is telling us is, please, look at my ability, not only at my disability.

Chasing her dream

Du Toit made it to the Olympics because she sweated and believed like everyone else, because she would not let go of her dream. Even when a car ran into her in 2001. “The Olympics have nothing to do with my disability,” she says, “it’s a dream I had as a six-year-old.”

“Swimming is my passion, it lets me be free,” she says. Here, in the water, life is simple. The harder she works, the better she does. So, four months after her foot was amputated, it is to this water she returned, this water in which you cannot see her leg or the lack of one. Here she is anyone else.

This is a cheerful, matter-of-factly woman, allergic to pity. So what she went through, you must imagine. So imagine, then, a body without a familiar stability, a technique gone awry, an inability to push off the wall during turns, a lack of a sprint to the finish because of no kick.

Imagine the self-belief that propelled her, the strength of the work ethic, the refusal to accept her quest was over. It was an acceptance of a challenge that was, well, Olympian.

Her inspiration

Ask her about inspiration and she points to Lance Armstrong. “He cycled when it was snowing, when others were scared of getting injured,” and she is not referring to the cyclist’s cancer but his intensity. “It’s about putting in that little extra,” she says. And so she did. A year later, in 2002, she got to the 800 metres freestyle final at the Commonwealth Games, an astonishing feat for no disabled athlete had swum in an able-bodied event. And three weeks ago she qualified for Beijing by coming fourth in the 10km open water world championship.

du Toit, who does not use a prosthetic and compensates with a thrower’s upper body, says, “I never thought of being disadvantaged” but she is.

Which is why coaches told her to try the 10k, “because there are no turns and not much sprinting so you don’t lose as much.”

It is a race that demands from the mind, for, as she says, “after one hour you’re already aching, you start to hurt, but everyone is hurting, and you have to raise your game.” It’s a race where flying elbows are OK but seaweed is not, and she is makes it clear — “I hate seaweed” — believing as she does that sharks occasionally linger there.

There is a spirit to Natalie du Toit that makes us feel puny, unworthy, yet her spirit also lifts us. So look for her at the Games. She’ll be easy to spot, simply because of the wide smile on her face.

On her website her motto reads, “Be everything you want to be.” And because she lived it from six years old, she’s finally where she wants to be. At the Olympics.

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