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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.