Amputee Olympic swimmer wants no free ride

August 20th, 2008 - 6:46 pm ICT by IANS  

Beijing, Aug 20 (DPA) Amputee swimmer Natalie Du Toit has made plenty of waves ever since she qualified for the Olympics with a fourth-place finish at the world championships in May in Spain.Things did not go quite so well as the 24-year-old competed against able-bodied athletes Wednesday at the Beijing Olympics in 10 km open water swimming and came 16th, 1 minute 22 seconds behind Russian winner Larisa Ilchenko.

But just the thrill of competing in the Olympics was the main story for Du Toit, who was given the honour of being the South African flag bearer at the Aug 8 opening ceremony.

“For me the Olympics is a dream come true. There were people who said it is not possible. But you don’t have to be the best, to get gold,” she insisted.

One adjustment had to be made, however, in order to become an Olympian. Du Toit, who started swimming at the age of six, had to leave the 50m pool for the open water because the missing leg was too much of a handicap there with all the turns.

The first races were slightly odd but Du Toit is recognized now as one of the pack in the sport - the only difference being that she takes the prosthetics she uses in everyday life off before she jumps into the water.

“There is no difference now. In the first races they would always let me lead and then swim past me in the end. It is like the Paralympics, we are all good friends,” she said.

That is true as others paid tribute to the courageous swimmer.

“It would be great if she would get a separate gold medal,” said Russian gold medallist Larisa Ilchenko.

British silver medallist Keri-Ann Payne said Du Toit was “an inspiration that you can do whatever you want to do, and compatriot bronze medallist Cassandra Patten named her “an amazing role model”.

Patten said she could only imagine Du Toit’s plight because “I find it (open water swimming) hard as an able-bodied athlete.”

But that’s exactly the challenge Du Toit wants as she has given up her studies to swim full time.

“I want to race against able-bodied athletes, I don’t want anything free. I worked hard to get here, I don’t want a free ride.

“I never worked out how much it (the missing leg) is a handicap. I just get in the water and swim … I get in the water and switch off. I am completely free in the water,” she said.

Du Toit also insists that she is not a campaigner and that one can’t compare her case to that of double-amputee runner Oscar Pistorius, who runs on prosthetics and failed to qualify for Beijing.

But the two will meet next month at the Paralympics where Du Toit aims to be as successful in the pool as in 2004 with five golds. As a result, there is also no time for widely celebrating Wednesday’s achievement.

“I will stay focussed and try my best at the Paralympics,” said Du Toit, whose only plans for the night of her big Olympic debut were to “have an ice cream” and to “sleep for hours” after realizing her big dream.

For her mother Deirdre it was as natural that Du Toit continued swimming after losing the lower left leg in a motorcycle accident in 2001.

“You are not disabled mentally. It happens, you have to carry on. She carried on where she left off,” said Deirdre Du Toit, who didn’t even have to offer encouragement because “Natalie does her own thing”.

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