The incredible journey of Paralympic champion Natalie

September 9th, 2008 - 10:33 am ICT by IANS  

Beijing, Sep 9 (Xinhua) Natalie du Toit walked slowly to the deck and removed her prosthetic leg. She sat at the edge of the pool and let her right leg - she lost the left to an accident - dangle in the water.When the referee sent a ready message, the South African swimmer pulled herself on to the deck again, wobbled a little and jumped in.

A new world record was made, a Paralympic gold was won, but she was also an Olympian.

“For me, it was really a challenge and tough journey before the Olympic Games, but I had tried my best today and had a really good race,” said the 24-year-old amputee, who had competed in the gruelling 10-km open-water swim at last month’s Olympics, finishing 16th among 25 able-bodied competitors.

“It was nice pool, it was amazing to swim in front of such a big crowds who are shouting for me, and I will continue,” said Du Toit.

Seeing her coach coming, she left the crowds of more than 100 journalists, buried her head into his shoulders, with tears welling up in her bloodshot eyes.

“The Paralympic is not so easy as you thought. Everybody is competitive and tonight it was very close. But I still made it as I worked hard and tried my best,” said the African.

She clocked one minute 06.74 seconds in the S9 women’s 100m butterfly on Sunday night, chopping 0.05 seconds off the previous mark she set in 2006.

As the world and Paralympic record holder in each of the five Paralympic events she is competing in at the Water Cube, it might be easy for her to repeat the “superfish” Michael Phelps’ epic glory.

But her painful journey to fulfil an Olympic dream was perhaps the toughest among all the sports.

Born in Cape Town, Du Toit was an up-and-coming swimmer who has been competing internationally since the age of 14. After the swim talent failed to qualify for the Sydney Olympics, her life took a tragic turn in 2001.

Riding her semi-automatic motor bike back to school after a training session in the morning, Natalie was hit by a car and sustained massive injuries to her left leg. In February, her left leg was finally amputated at the knee.

Three months later, before she had started walking again, the girl with her indomitable spirit was back in the pool. It seems that she belonged to the water and only swimming could make her feel whole again.

“I keep working hard along the ways here. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs. But I am not a negativist. I know I have to see that in a good light way,” said Du Toit.

In 2003, competing against able-bodied swimmers, Du Toit shocked everyone winning a gold in the 800 meters freestyle at the All-Africa Games despite the fact that the legs are vital for starts and turns in the pool.

“In most of my time, I always compete with the able-bodied athletes. Paralympic arena is just one of my stops. No matter what kind of the competitions, you just get up there, race to their best and try your best, that’s the most important thing for me,” said Du Toit.

She didn’t slow down the tough journey as her dream still drove her to create miracles. Though narrowly missing qualifying for the Athens Olympics in 2004, during the Paralympics that were held in the same city, she won five gold medals and one silver. But it was not even close to what she wanted.

May 3, 2008 was destined to be one of the most important days of Du Toit’s life. After finishing fourth in the 10 km open water race at the World Championships in Spain, she finally opened the door for her maiden Olympics in Beijing.

Though unsatisfied with the 16-place finish, her dream was fulfilled. She has long dreamed of this moment, when she can stop being a disabled swimmer and start being a swimmer again.

“You have to set dreams, you have to set goals. I have joined in both Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing. I can say my whole dream fulfilled. But now, I have to forget about these things. I will concentrate on my goals, that is to swim to my best in the following events,” she said.

Du Toit is a heroine in South Africa. She was the flag bearer at both opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics. She said it would “be a memory forever”.

“It was my biggest honour to carry the flag for South Africa. I was nervous and afraid that the flag could wave to the people’s faces,” she said.

“But both ceremonies were spectacular. When the torch was finally lit in the venue, it was very emotional. It was something you should never miss in your life,” she said.

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