By The Associated Press
Posted Tuesday, August 19, 2008 9:44 PM ET
BEIXIAOYING TOWN, China (AP) — Natalie du Toit pulled herself onto the dock and waited for someone to bring her prosthetic leg. She stretched out the other leg — the one she didn’t lose in that horrendous motorcycle accident — and chatted with an official about the first open water race in Olympic history.
Du Toit didn’t finish where she wanted. Not even close.
But just making it to Beijing was a huge victory for anyone who’s ever faced a disability.
Hoping to contend for a medal, the 24-year-old South African amputee fell off the pace toward the end of the grueling 6.2-mile race and finished 16th on Wednesday, more than a minute behind gold medalist Larisa Ilchenko of Russia.
“I tried my best,” du Toit said. “I’m not too happy with it, but I’ll be back for 2012.”
Don’t bet against her.
When she walked out with 24 other swimmers to be introduced for the groundbreaking event, it was quickly apparent she wasn’t like any of them.
Du Toit hobbled along stiffly on her artificial leg, No. 23 written on her back and both arms. While others bounced up and down to loosen up, she settled for shaking her arms. A couple of times, she walked over to the edge to splash water on her face and goggles, leaning over tenuously with the wooden prosthetic sticking out to the side, keeping her from falling over.
When it was time to race, she walked slowly onto the dock and removed her replacement leg. Someone moved it to the side, and du Toit sat at the edge of the water, her right leg dangling in. When the starter called for everyone to get ready, she pulled herself up, wobbled just a bit and dove in.
She was an Olympian.
“My message isn’t just to disabled people,” du Toit said. “It’s to everyone out there that you have to work hard. I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs … but I’ve seen a lot of good things along the way. I was able to use the negativism in a good light and say after my accident, ‘I can still do it if I work hard.’
“You have to set dreams, set goals and never give up.”
Du Toit, who carried the South African flag in the Opening Ceremony, hung with the lead pack much of the race, but she had a problem with her cap and couldn’t keep up when the pace quickened toward the end of the two-hour ordeal. She finished 1 minute, 22.2 seconds behind Ilchenko, who out-sprinted two British swimmers who led most of the way.
Then again, du Toit’s time of 2 hours, 49.9 seconds put her ahead of nine others, including 16-year-old American Chloe Sutton, who broke down in tears after finishing, every part of her body cramping and aching.
“I was swimming next to her and she beat me — and she has one leg,” Sutton said. “It’s incredible she was able to do that.”
Du Toit was an up-and-coming swimmer who just missed qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Games when her life took a tragic turn in 2001. Returning to school on a motorbike after a training session, she collided with a car and sustained massive injuries to her left leg. Doctors tried for a week to save it but finally had to amputate at the knee.
Instead of giving up on her athletic career, du Toit was back in the water six months later. Swimming made her feel whole again, though she wasn’t competitive with able-bodied athletes in the pool, where the legs are vital for starts and turns.
Along came open water, which was added to the program for Beijing. There are no flip turns to negotiate in marathon swimming, which is usually held in lakes and oceans, and the upper body is more important than the legs.
“When I take my leg off and I’m completely free in the water,” du Toit said, “that’s who I am.”
She had found her new calling. Du Toit qualified for the Olympics with a fourth-place finish at the World Championships in Spain this year.
“I find it hard, and I’m a completely able-bodied person,” said Cassandra Patten, who won bronze in the race held at the Olympic rowing and canoeing course. “She’s an amazing role model.”
The race didn’t go according to plan. Du Toit caught her skintight cap on a buoy and spent much of the time fiddling with it, trying make sure it didn’t fall off.
With the cap occupying her attention, she kept skipping the drink stops along the course and wound up getting dehydrated. By the end, her leg was cramping and searing pain ripped through her bulky arms.
“I couldn’t even get out of the water,” du Toit said. “That showed I gave my best.”
After bobbing on the surface in the finish area for a few seconds, she finally hoisted herself onto the deck. The official came over with her artificial leg, which was stuffed with the T-shirt du Toit wore out for the start. She pulled it out, slipped on the prosthesis and walked slowly toward dry land.
Du Toit has put herself out there for everybody to see, and she’s eager to share her story.
“Sometimes you feel a bit awkward kind of asking, but she told me everything. She told me about the accident, what happened, the rehab,” Patten said. “She’s got such courage. Everyone’s insecure, everyone has insecurities. To kind of put that in show and be totally fine with that is totally amazing. I’m going to go and give her a big cuddle.”
Du Toit was not the first disabled athlete to compete at the Olympics, or even in Beijing. Natalia Partyka, who was born with a right arm that ends just below the elbow, made the Polish team in table tennis.
Both will remain in Beijing after these Games to compete in the Paralympics. Du Toit will be looking to match the five gold medals she won in Athens four years ago.
No disabled Olympian was more successful than American gymnast George Eyser, who won three golds and five medals overall while competing on a wooden leg at the 1904 St. Louis Games. His left leg was amputated after a train accident.
Still, it’s quite unusual for someone with a major disability to compete at this level, especially in a sport such as swimming where the legs provide so much power.
Ilchenko praised du Toit for not letting her disability hold her back. She was right in there battling with everyone else in a race that’s often called wrestling in the water for its rough tactics.
“I’d even go so far as to award her a separate medal,” the winner said through a translator. “I have enormous respect for her. It is exceedingly hard. Just looking at these people inspires you.”
Du Toit did receive a special gift from officials at the rowing basin: a traditional Chinese drawing encased in a wooden box. She doesn’t want to be treated any different, however.
“I worked hard to get here,” she said. “I want to do everything on merit. This is not just a free ride.”
Du Toit didn’t get a free ride Wednesday.
She was an Olympian, just like everyone else.