Beijing, here comes the unbreakable Natalie

2008-05-09 00:00

Early morning on Wednesday, August 20, an extraordinary young woman could become not just the South African success story of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games … she might just become THE story.

It will be 9 am on a predictably bright, warm day at the futuristic Shunyi Olympic rowing and canoeing park, 30 km north-east of downtown Beijing — and it will be 3 am on a dark, cold morning back home in Cape Town — when Natalie du Toit takes her place at the start of the women’s 10 km swimming race.

She could win. She really could.

In a story that will be flashed around the planet, dominating front pages and news bulletins worldwide, delighting, inspiring and motivating hundreds of millions of people, the 24-year-old South African may become the first amputee to win an Olympic gold medal.

That same day, the Proteas will be playing a Twenty20 international against England in Durham and the world champion Springboks will be preparing to face the Wallabies in Durban, but all their exploits will be overshadowed by the news from Beijing. South Africans may wake up from their blinkered infatuation with major team sports and discover a global role model has emerged from beneath their noses.

Within days, admirers from Aabenraa in Denmark to Zywiec in Poland, and almost everywhere else in between, will know that Natalie was born in Cape Town on January 29, 1984, that she started swimming when she was six and emerged as a gifted 14-year-old prodigy when she competed in the 1998 Commonwealth Games.

They will be aware of what happened to her at exactly 7.23 am on Monday, February 26, 2001, when, after finishing her usual early morning training session at the Newlands pool, she was travelling to school on her scooter and, barely two minutes down the road, was struck in the side by a car emerging from a parking area.

They will have heard her explain in countless interviews how her leg split open like a tomato when you drop it on the ground, and how, five days later, her doctors at the Constantiaberg Hospital decided they had no option but to amputate her left leg above the knee.

They will know that she returned to the pool three months later, ever more resolved to realise her dream of swimming at the highest level, at the Olympics, and that she pragmatically switched from her specialist event before the accident, the individual medley, with its emphasis on neat tumble turns, to longer-distance events.

They will marvel at her total dedication and commitment to succeed against the odds, and they will admire her record in recent events: at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester she won gold in two disabled races, qualified for the able-bodied 800 m freestyle final and was named as the Outstanding Athlete of the Games; at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens she won five gold and a silver; at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne she won two gold.

They will know how she focussed her iron ambition on Beijing, and specifically on the 10 km race, which has been added to the swimming schedule for the first time.

Her strength and courage would come to the fore in an event dubbed "wrestling in water" because competitors tend to push and shove as they race in the open water.

To qualify, she needed to finish in the top ten of last week’s world championship race in Seville and, despite being delayed in transit and losing her luggage on the way (which meant she arrived only a day before the race and without the batteries to power the prosthetic leg she uses outside the water), she performed brilliantly and finished fourth, posting a time of two hours, two minutes and 7,8 seconds, no more than 5,1 seconds behind the winner, Larisa Ilchenko.

The Russian will start favourite in Beijing, but the margins are small and anything is possible on the day. Just imagine … Natalie du Toit, South Africa, standing on the winner’s podium, on an artificial leg, singing the national anthem with a gold medal around her neck.

It’s worth noting: the medal ceremony of the women’s 10 km swim will take place at 5.40 am (SA time) on Wednesday, August 20.

oEdward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby. See www.onesmallvoice.co.za

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