Natalie makes Olympic history
5 May 2008
Paralympic superstar Natalie du Toit's career is littered with ground-breaking achievements, but her latest - becoming the first amputee to qualify for the Olympic Games - might be the most amazing of them all.
Du Toit booked her place in Beijing at the weekend by finishing fourth in the 10-kilometre race at the World Open Water Swimming Championships in Seville; she needed to place in the top 10 to earn a spot at the Olympics.
Victory went to Russia's Larisa Ilchenko in two hours, two minutes, and 2.7 seconds, with Britain's Cassie Patten in second place, just over three seconds behind, and Spain's Yurema Requena in third in 2:07:07. Du Toit narrowly missed out on a medal, finishing fractionally behind the Spaniard, although they shared the same time.
Some of the top finishers will be familiar to South African swimming fans; runner-up Cassie Patten contested the Midmar Mile, the world's largest open water swimming event, in 2006 and finished third, while Keri-Anne Payne, who finished eighth in Seville, is a former three-time winner of the Midmar Mile.
For Du Toit, qualifying for the Olympics was the realisation of a dream she had carried since she was a young child. And despite all the obstacles she has overcome in her career, she had never cried after a race until it happened in Seville. The inspirational South African explained that they were tears of joy because she had finally made her dream come true.
Before she lost her leg in an accident, Du Toit narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. As an amputee, she failed to qualify for the Athens Olympics in 2004, although she won five gold medals in the Paralympics in the Greek capital. Four years on, at the age of 24, she is on her way to Beijing to take on the world's leading open water swimmers.
A place in the record books
The efforts of fellow South African Oscar Pistorius to become the first amputee to qualify to race against able-bodied opposition at the Olympics has captured plenty of attention in the media, but Du Toit has written her name into the record books by winning a place in South Africa's Olympic team.
Unlike Pistorius she doesn't use a prosthetic when competing. Thus, she hasn't had to undergo tests to determine whether or not she is assisted or held back by an artificial limb. Incredibly, in Seville, Du Toit managed to duel head-to-head with the best open water swimmers in the world despite the fact that her left leg was amputated below the knee in 2001.
Some have likened her disadvantage to a kayaker paddling with a single-bladed paddle. Her qualification is that amazing.
Du Toit reckons there is no magic recipe for success; it is all down to hard work and determination.
No doubt, given her incredible drive, she will be aiming for more than competing in Beijing, with a medal her aim at the Olympics. Her success in Seville suggests that it is a possibility and Du Toit has been pushing the boundaries of possibilities for a long time now.
Her qualification for Beijing has ensured, regardless of how she fares, that she will be one of the stories of the Olympics.
Du Toit's past achievements include becoming the first amputee to qualify for the finals of an event at a major championship; she did that at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002 when she reached the final of the 800 metres freestyle. In the same championships, she won gold in the multi-disability 50m and 100m freestyle, both in world record time.
David Dixon Award winner
At the closing ceremony of the Manchester Games she was presented with the first David Dixon award for the Outstanding Athlete of the Games - a unanimous choice ahead of Australia's Ian Thorpe, who won six gold and one silver medals and set a world record in the 400 metres freestyle.
In 2003, competing against able-bodied swimmers in the 800 freestyle at the All-Africa Games, Du Toit captured gold. At the Afro-Asian Games in the same year, she won silver in the 800 metres and bronze in the 400 metres, again against able-bodied opposition.
At the 2004 Paralympics, she won five gold medals and one silver medal. The following year, at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, she claimed three golds. In 2006, in Durban, in the International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships, she won six gold medals and was third overall in the five-kilometre open water event, competing against both male and female swimmers.
World record holder
Du Toit holds numerous world records in disability swimming, including in various distances in the freestyle, butterfly, and individual medley.
In 2004, she was nominated for the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability Award. She didn't win, but her outstanding achievement of qualifying for the 2008 Olympics is likely to land her a second Laureus nomination and maybe even make her a Laureus Award winner.
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