Natalie’s Story

From an article title by P.H. Mullen “Everything is possible if you can just believe” that appeared in SwimmingWorld of July 2005.
Despite losing her leg only a year after she just missed qualifying for the Olympics, South African swimmer Natalie du Toit still competes, still succeeds and still dream of one day taking part in an Olympic Games.

By the time she was a teenager, South African swim-ming had its eye on Natalie du Toit. The versatile Cape Town swimmer lit up the pool, set-ting multiple national age group records in both medley events and dominating many of her races. At 16, she nearly qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics in three events. People sensed great things were in store for the strong, determined swimmer. In 2004, Athens could become her playground. Then in 2001, those plans abruptly changed. Done with morning workout, du Toit eased her motor scooter into Monday rush-hour traffic and headed to school.

Just down the street from her pool, a careless driver exiting a parking lot ran directly into her left leg. The scene was gruesome; the devastation was immediately obvious. “I kept saying, ‘I’ve lost my leg, I’ve lost my leg,’” remembers du Toit. Her teammates rushed to her. Traffic snarled. The scene: total, horrible chaos. A motorcycle policeman racing to the accident crashed headfirst into a truck and had to be airlifted to a hospital. It would have been merciful if du Toit had fainted. But this is a girl who confronts reality without blinking. She stayed awake. At that moment, Natalie du Toit was not in the least preoccupied with her swimming career. But that state of mind would prove to be very temporary.

Du Toit comes from a working-class background, and maybe that’s where she learned her stubbornness and determination. Mother Deidre, is a receptionist and father, David, is a foreman (she has an older brother André). Even the family dogs suggest a serious, no-nonsense attitude: Binga is a boxer and Storm is a rottweiler. For days, the doctors attempted to save her leg. But it was no use. They amputated through the left knee and inserted a titanium rod into her broken femur. “I remember asking my mom, ‘When are they going to amputate?’” Du Toit recalls. “My mom’s answer was that they already had.” Through the fog of medication, Du Toit absorbed the news. The next day she got out of bed. Life was calling. The pool was calling. “I just wanted to get back to life again – swimming four hours a day – and I wanted to be able to walk again so that I would be able to do things by myself,” she says. Her teammates visited the hospital. Awkwardly, they mumbled their condolences, sympathies and whatever it is a person is supposed to say at a time like this. She like the visits, but couldn’t handle the pity. So she would pull back the sheets to shock them with her half leg. Several nearly fainted. This wasn’t an angry move. But it was a defiant one.

Did people record this raw defiance in their diaries? They should have, for it was the first clue that Du Toit planned to defy all the odds that got in her way.

You will know when Du Toit is racing. You will know because the crowd is on its feet. The crowd tries to process what it is witnessing. There in the water is an amputee racing with the lead pack. The crowd cheers because the other alternative is to sit in stunned disbelief.

Natalie du Toit, now 24, is one of the world’s fastest distance swimmers, and the only amputee to qualifying for the Olympic Games. Less than two years after the accident, she qualified for the finals of the 800 meter freestyle at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, marking the first time an amputee in the modern era had raced in the finals of an able-bodied international swimming competition.

That day, Du Toit wasn’t close to winning. But that hardly mattered. She was named outstanding athlete of the Games, beating Aussie Ia Thorpe, who had won six golds, one silver, ands set a new world record. Out of necessity, she switched to distance freestyle after the accident. But although her body and events have changed, her goals haven’t. “I have always had a dream to take part in an Olympic Games, and losing my leg didn’t change anything,” she says.

When she’s not training, she’s studying sports management. She’s also doing motivational speaking because she’s become one of South Africa’s best-known stories and a source of inspiration to the country.

Just imagine what it would mean if she competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She doesn’t yet have the qualifying times, but she’s not that far off. Prior to the accident, a coach gave Du Toit an unattributed poem. She rediscovered it after her accident. Before, it didn’t mean much. Now, a laminated copy hangs on her wall, and she can probably recite it in her sleep:

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.