‘She stole the hearts of the world’

2008-08-21 00:00

Paralympics gold medallist Natalie du Toit may not have gained a medal in the 10 km marathon swim, but she wrote her name into Olympic history yesterday when she became the first amputee to compete in the Olympics Games, and in doing so stole the hearts of the world.

“It didn’t go well, I’m disappointed with my swim. I had a goal of making the top five, but I am very happy to have been here,” said Du Toit, “I had problems from lap one, when my swimming cap got stuck on a buoy.” With the cap bothering her, she skipped several drink stops and eventually became dehydrated, ending the race with pain in her leg and arms.

“My swim in Seville was much better. I’m disappointed with today’s race, but when I got to the end I couldn’t even get out of the water, I couldn’t move, so I know I gave everything and came 16th, so I have to be happy with that.”

Du Toit completed the first three laps up among the leading seven swimmers who were dominated by British duo Cassie Patten and Keri Anne Payne, with Russia’s eight-time world champion Larisa Ilchenko sitting directly behind.

As the race began to unfold, Du Toit’s cap irritation saw her drop back towards the rear of the pack where she stayed until picking up a couple of places in the final stretch to finish 16th overall in 2:00,49,9.

“In Seville I swam on the outside, here I had to stop (for my cap) and you lose your rhythm and momentum when swimming in the pack; there’s lots of dunking going round the buoys,” said Du Toit, hinting at some gamesmanship in pack swimming.

Ilchenko adopted the same tactics that have won her eight World Championships — swimming directly behind the British pair for all but the last 500 metres, where she sprinted to the line in 1:59,27,7 with a 1,5 second advantage over silver medallist Payne.

“Just looking at her is a motivation, they should give her a separate medal for her bravery, ” said an adamant Ilchenko.

“We have a hard enough time racing as able-bodied swimmers,” said bronze medallist Patten. “What she has done is inspiring, she is very strong. Her qualification was amazing, particularly in Seville which is a very hard race.”

Du Toit’s performance was recognised by the Beijing Shunyi community who surprised her with the presentation of a specially commissioned traditional Chinese paper cutting of a swimmer through water with the words “Shunyi congratulates you” inscribed below.

This is the first time the 10 km open water swim has been held at the Olympics. “Two years ago a couple of coaches approached me as they expected the event to be included [in the games], and I took them up on their offer, and that led to today,” said Du Toit.

“In my first couple of World Cup events the other swimmers let me lead and then passed me just before the finish, but now they race the whole way. It’s important for me to qualify through the normal process. Since the age of six I have dreamt of competing in the Olympics, so the motivation has been there and it was important for me to make it on merit. I really don’t want anything free.”

The South African was swamped by the media as she was ushered back to the change rooms and medical facilities after the race. “After Seville I never really appreciated that it meant I would be an Olympian, (but this morning on the pontoon) when it’s here, it’s now, and you’ve worked three or four months solidly for it, I almost wept but that’s the passion. You’ve worked so hard to get to the Olympic Games and to finally be at the race. I’ve been in the village for a few weeks and I was ready, but had to wait because the swim was today. All that comes together before the race and it’s emotional,” said Du Toit, holding her emotions in check. “But after the race I felt relief that it was over – and I think that’s when it really hit me. It’s been a long road and it’s great to be here”

The Cape-based swimmer feels sure that other paralympic swimmers, depending on their disability, will be able to qualify, although she expects the times in this event to drop quite quickly as it becomes an established part of the Olympic programme. “The times will drop well below the two hours quite quickly, as it gains in popularity,” said Du Toit, who spent the first hour after the race getting physiotherapy as part of her recovery to let her get back into training for the Paralympics in two weeks time, where she hopes to defend her Athens medals over the shorter pool distances.

“They are very different events: I swim the 50, 100 and 400 metres freestyle, 100 back, 100 fly and 200 medley there, so I can ease back on the distance, but will put my Olympic celebration on hold until the Paralympics are over.”

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