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Du Toit is a different kind of golden

Du Toit is a different kind of golden – Susan Casey –

Story Highlights

  • Natalie du Toit was the first female amputee to compete in the Olympics
  • She participated in the 10K marathon swim, finishing in 16th place
  • Du Toit says she just wants to “compete against able-bodied athletes”

BEIJING — She was standing in the road. The sun glared overhead and the pavement simmered and the air was thick with humidity and Natalie du Toit stood there, next to the golf cart that would take her to the start of the 10k marathon swim. She had a towel over her shoulders and a yellow bathing cap on her head with her race number, 23, scrawled on the side in black magic marker. The sun beat down on her as she talked to a group of people who’d gathered. She looked strong — as you’d expect in a woman who was about to swim up and down the Olympic rowing basin for two hours — but as I walked past her on my way to the stands I wondered why there was no one around to take charge of all this; no coach or manager to shoo away the gawkers so that Natalie could sit down in the shade and rest, for God’s sake, drink a little Gatorade and gather her focus for the start, less than 30 minutes away.

Five minutes went by and then 10 and still she continued to stand there. She took the towel from her shoulders and draped it over her head against the sun. She shifted her weight from her left leg, from the carbon prosthesis that ended in the perfectly shaped, flesh-colored outline of a foot, to her right. Du Toit has a high performance set of legs; it’s just that the two of them didn’t quite match. And anyone who thought that might’ve stopped her from becoming an Olympian doesn’t know her very well. “I want to compete against able-bodied athletes,” she’d said. “I don’t want anything free.”

Looking at her, I couldn’t help but flash back to the previous week’s swimming competition, over at the Water Cube. The 10k was just another race in the same program, but it was being held in a parallel universe. Here there was no architectural icon to compete in, no glowing cube with psychedelic lighting, turbulence-free gutters, and ozone filtration. Instead there was a flat, murky expanse of rowing water dug out of a field. There was no theme music here either, no cavorting mascots, no cute Chinese girls in spangly costumes playing the bongos. Unlike Michael Phelps, Natalie du Toit wasn’t accompanied by a bodyguard, a few agents, a coach, and two biomechanics experts. And if Rowdy Gaines was at the Shunyi Rowing-Canoeing Park, reporting live for NBC, I didn’t see him.

At the start, du Toit stood again. She stood on a red floating platform next to her 24 competitors, all of whom were able-bodied and most of whom she’d beaten before. I watched her take off her prosthetic leg to dive in. Du Toit didn’t win a gold medal that day, let alone eight of them. But gold is a standard as well as a distinction, and as Natalie du Toit hit the water, it was obvious at that moment that she and Michael Phelps had everything in common.

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P Mlambo-Ngcuka congratulates Natalie Du Toit

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka congratulates Olympian swimmer Natalie Du Toit on her achievement at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in China

21 August 2008

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has congratulated South Africa’s Natalie du Toit for accomplishing 16th place in the Women’s Marathon 10km swimming competition at the Beijing Olympics.

Mlambo-Ngcuka says the feat is one to be proud of and that the young South African swimming sensation is to be admired. She says not only is du Toit a proud South African, but also someone that young South Africans should look up to. Mlambo-Ngcuka says du Toit has made the country proud and has shown that through sheer determination, nothing is unachievable.

Deputy President Mlambo-Ngcuka has also congratulated Team South Africa’s silver medallist – Khotso Mokoena – for his achievement in the long jump event.

For more information, contact:
Denzil Taylor
Cell: 082 561 3772

Issued by: The Presidency
21 August 2008

Our incredible Natalie
Kevin McCallum
August 20 2008 at 02:27PM

An hour after she had made history at the Beijing Olympics on Wednesday morning, tears welled up in Natalie du Toit’s eyes as she spoke of how much it meant to her to take part.

“When I qualified for the Olympics, I just sat and cried,” Du Toit told a press conference after she finished 16th in the 10km marathon swim this morning.

“But getting here, becoming an Olympian, is a dream I have had since I was six. This is where I have wanted to be for the last 18 years of my life. Now I’ve done it.”

Several dignitaries turned up to watch Du Toit as she became the first amputee swimmer to take part in the Olympic Games.

In the stands at the Shunyi Olympic rowing and canoeing park were International Olympic Committee member Sam Ramsamy, SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee president Moss Mashishi and Du Toit’s former teammate Charlene Wittstock, now retired from the sport and involved in a high-profile romance with Prince Albert of Monaco.

Britain’s Princess Anne was there as well, cheering on English swimmers Keri-Anne Payne and Cassie Patten, who finished second and third behind Larisa Ilchenko of Russia.

Payne was born and schooled in Joburg until her English parents returned to their homeland.

“We’re really good friends with Natalie,” said Patten.

“She told us her story when she came on to the open water circuit, and to hear a story like that can only inspire you. To swim the way she does without one of her legs is incredible.

“I know she’ll be disappointed in how she did, but she will get better.”

Ilchenko felt that Du Toit should get a special medal for competing. But Du Toit probably wouldn’t accept it; she does not do pity or charity, save towards others, and was hard on herself on Wednesday morning.

“I’m a bit upset I didn’t come in the top five. I thought I had a chance of a good swim and a good place,” said Du Toit. “It was a dream for me just to compete and I gave it everything, but I’m glad that the race is over. Things went wrong for me that slowed me down, but the initial pace was incredible.”

While there was no medal, there was a special award for Du Toit from organisers at Shunyi. They presented her with a drawing to commemorate her swim.

Now that she’s done with the Olympics, she will do some sightseeing around Beijing.

“I’ve got to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but then I have to get back in the pool and start training. The Paralympics is coming up and I have to make sure I’m in shape for that.”

She’ll take part in the 100m butterfly, the 100m backstroke, the 200m individual medley and the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle events.

One dream has been fulfilled, though.

“I was told by a few people after I got out of hospital in 2001 that I would never make the Olympics. I didn’t use that as motivation, but I did keep believing it was possible.”

    • This article was originally published on page 1 of The Star on August 20, 2008
Category: Olympic Games - Beijing 2008  Comments off
Amputee inspires in Olympic debut |NBC

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.”



  • Natalie du Toit
    Natalie du Toit

    South African swimmer Natalie du Toit, whose left leg was amputated below the knee after a 2001 motor scooter accident, competed in the 10k open water race in Beijing.

  • Women’s 10k open water

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. – Amputee inspires in Olympic debut

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Natalie Du Toit – BIO – Beijing 2008

RSA Swimming

January 29, 1984

, South Africa

10k open water

Blazing a new trail
In one of the most inspiring stories of the Beijing Games, Natalie du Toit qualified to swim the inaugural 10k open water race, despite losing her left leg below the knee in a 2001 scooter accident. Du Toit, who swims without a prosthetic (the rules prohibit prosthetics in swimming), is the first known amputee swimmer to qualify for the Olympics.

Road to Beijing
Du Toit qualified for Beijing by finishing fourth in the 10k at the 2008 Open Water Worlds, where the top 10 finishers automatically earned Olympic berths. “That was a big surprise,” she said of the finish. “I didn’t expect to finish fourth. I didn’t think I’d be top 10 at all.” At the time, du Toit had competed in three open water races internationally to prepare for Worlds. But she had been putting in more training than ever and said she was prepared for the race both physically and mentally. And, three-quarters through the race, du Toit noticed she was in the top 4 or 5. “I was still feeling good, so it was just my mentality to keep up there and keep going and sprint,” she said. “It’s just a lot of training that went into it, and I was mentally prepared to go out there and really want something.”

‘Don’t panic’
Of everything du Toit has learned when it comes to open water swimming, she highlights one point as the most important: “You musn’t panic,” she said. “You’re going to get hit and you’re going to get dunked, but don’t panic.” And in the 10k, which is a two-hour race, there are plenty of chances to panic. But now du Toit is prepared for those instances. “It comes with practice,” she said.

The accident
Du Toit lost her leg when she was hit by a car while riding her motor scooter in 2001. She recalls being in excruciating pain after the accident and not being able to feel her left leg, but she doesn’t remember going to the hospital. Doctors put du Toit in a hyperbaric chamber in the hopes that her muscles would regenerate, but when that was unsuccessful they told her they would have to amputate the leg. Du Toit then remembers waking up and asking her mother when the operation would be, but her mother told her it had already happened.

Return to the water
Back in the pool after six months, du Toit never considered giving up the sport. She first tried open water swimming at a race in Egypt in 2002 but, despite winning the 5k, called it a negative experience. At the time, du Toit was training mainly for sprints in the pool and was totally unprepared for such long distances. But the 10k was added to the Olympic program in 2005, and du Toit eventually realized that could provide her another opportunity to make the Olympics. She only really began to focus on open water in 2007, but having been a distance swimmer for several years, took to the sport quickly.

Balancing act
After the accident, du Toit began a career as a motivational speaker. She talks at schools, companies and churches in South Africa in order to support her swimming. Though she enjoys speaking, du Toit says that it began to interfere with her training. She cut back on her schedule, in the past year especially, and says that is what enabled her to succeed in open water. “I had so much more training behind me than I had previously, and it gave me so much confidence,” she said.

Nearly there
Du Toit followed her older brother, Andre, into swimming as a child, and she never played any other sports. She narrowly missed qualifying for the South African team in Sydney, which was before her accident, in the 200m butterfly, 200m IM and 400m IM. She was closest in the 200m IM, where she said she missed the qualifying standard by about one second. Only 16 at the time, du Toit was considered a serious contender for 2004 and 2008.

2008 Beijing Summer Olympics | Natalie du Toit Profile & Bio, Photos & Videos | NBC Olympics
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