Amputee swimmer completes 10K marathon
BEIXIAOYING TOWN, China (AP) — Natalie du Toit pulled herself onto the dock and waited for someone to bring her prosthetic leg. She stretched out the other leg — the one she didn’t lose in that horrendous motorcycle accident — and chatted with her coach about the first open water race in Olympic history.
Natalie du Toit prepares for the Women´s 10km Marathon at the Shunyi Rowing and Canoeing Park on August 19.
Du Toit didn’t finish where she wanted. Not even close.
But just making it to Beijing was a huge victory for anyone who’s ever faced a disability.
Hoping to contend for a medal, the 24-year-old South African amputee fell off the pace toward the end of the grueling 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) race and finished 16th, more than a minute behind gold medalist Larisa Ilchenko of Russia.
“I tried my best,” du Toit said. “I’m not too happy with it, but I’ll be back for 2012.”
Don’t bet against her.
When she walked out with 24 other swimmers to be introduced for the historic event, it was quickly apparent this wasn’t just another competitor.
Du Toit hobbled along stiffly on her artificial leg, No. 23 written on her back and both arms. While others bounced up and down to loosen up, she settled for shaking her arms. A couple of times, she walked over to the edge to splash water on her face and goggles, leaning over tenuously with her metal prosthetic sticking out to the side, serving as balance.
When it was time to race, she walked onto the dock and removed her replacement leg. Someone moved it away, and du Toit sat at the edge of the water, her right leg dangling in. When the starter called for everyone to get ready, she pulled herself up, wobbled just a bit and dove in.
She was an Olympian.
Du Toit hung with the lead pack most of the race, but couldn’t keep up when the pace quickened toward the end of the two-hour ordeal. She finished 1 minute, 22.2 seconds behind Ilchenko, who out-sprinted two British swimmers who led most of the way.
But du Toit’s time of 2 hours, 49 minutes, 9 seconds put her ahead of nine others, including 16-year-old American Chloe Sutton, who broke down in tears after finishing, every part of her body cramping and aching.
“I’ve got to get faster,” said du Toit, who looked like she could swim another 10 kilometers. “The race will obviously improve. This is the first time they’ve swum it at the Olympics. It’s going to get faster and faster.”
An up-and-coming swimmer who just missed qualifying for the Sydney Games, du Toit’s life took a tragic turn in 2001. Returning to school on a motorbike after a training session, she collided with a car and sustained massive injuries to her left leg. Doctors tried for a week to save it but finally had to amputate at the knee.
Instead of giving up on her athletic career, du Toit was back in the water six months later. Swimming made her feel whole again, but she wasn’t competitive with able-bodied athletes in the pool, where the legs are vital for starts and turns.
Along came open water, which was added to the program for Beijing. There are no flip turns to negotiate in marathon swimming, which is usually held in lakes and oceans, and the upper body is more important than the legs.
Du Toit had found her new calling. She qualified for the Olympics with a fourth-place finish at the world championships in Spain this year.
“I find it hard, and I’m a completely able-bodied person,” said Cassandra Patten, who won bronze in the race held at the Olympic rowing and canoeing course. “She’s an amazing role model.”
Ilchenko praised du Toit for not letting her disability hold her back. She was right in there battling with everyone else in a race that’s often called wrestling in the water for its rough tactics.
“I’d even go so far as to award her a separate medal,” the winner said through a translator. “I have enormous respect for her. It is exceedingly hard. Just looking at these people inspires you.”