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South African swimmer loses leg, finds dream

BEIXIAOYING TOWN, China — Her journey was almost complete. Only a few footsteps lay between Natalie du Toit and the Olympics.

Still, du Toit walked slowly across the uneven concrete that led to the dock where her race would begin. She looked down as she walked, making certain of her footing, as she moved to her starting position.

There were two other swimmers in front of du Toit, and 22 behind her. Still, it was easy to pick out the number "23" that was stenciled on the back of her wide shoulder blades, and on her biceps, and on her hand.

Only 45 seconds remained before the start of the marathon swimming race.

It was time for the volunteer to come and haul du Toit's left leg away.

Warning: This is one of "those" stories. This is one of the Olympic dramas that tugs at the heart and jerks at the tears and leaves you prepared to embrace a complete stranger from a different country. This is another of the stories of human resiliency on which the Olympics are built. And aren't they grand?

Du Toit, the South African swimmer with a nub where her left leg used to be, was about to make her Olympic debut.

And no matter how many legs you have, hers is a story you ought to hear.

"My message isn't just for disabled people," said du Toit (de TOY), 24. "It's for everyone. You have to set dreams, set goals and never give up."

A different dream ago, du Toit was quite the young swimmer. In 2000, when she was 16, she barely missed qualifying for the Sydney Olympics in three events. Her future seemed golden.

It was only a year later, however, when du Toit's life took a detour. While she was returning to school from practice, a careless driver pulled out of a parking lot and drove into the left side of her motorbike. "I've lost my leg," du Toit screamed at the time. "I've lost my leg."

Actually, it was a week later, after the gangrene had started to set into the pulverized leg, that surgeons removed it.

"I was kind of prepared for it," du Toit said. "I didn't think of it as hampering me. I just wanted to see what I could do. I wanted to get up and see where swimming could take me."

As it turns out, it took her all the way to the Olympics.

Open-water swimming is a debut sport in the Olympics and can best be described as distance swimming with a roller derby mentality. The swimmers go 6.2 miles, most of them in a pack where kicking, punching and dunking are considered tools of the trade. For most of the open-water race, the swimmers say, they mainly use their arms. But, yes, in the spring to the finish, a swimmer's legs can be the difference between winning and losing.

Despite that, du Toit finished 16th, which means she beat nine swimmers with the full complement of legs. For the record, du Toit was disappointed. She thought she would finish in the top five.

Still, it is hard to see du Toit as anything but inspirational after Wednesday. Somewhere, it is easy to imagine a young girl who has just lost an arm looking on, perhaps a young boy who has just lost a leg. Somehow, it is easy to imagine that their possibilities look brighter than the day before.

"It's important to cry," du Toit said, "and it's important to say 'I am now who I am. I've had a motorbike accident, and I've got to move on.' "

When du Toit had her accident, it was swimming that helped her heal. Deidre du Toit, Natalie's mother, remembered that after her operation, her daughter suffered from the "phantom pain" of losing a limb. In the water, however, that pain went away.

Still, there were friends who told du Toit she would never be able to make the Olympics. And yet, here she was. Four years ago, in Athens, she had competed at the Paralympics, but du Toit wanted more, the greater distances, the stronger competition.

"To me, it's not about disabled and able-bodied," du Toit said. "I just jump in the water and swim.

"You know what? It's not about making it. To realize your dream, you don't have to be a champion, you don't have to be the best there is, you don't have to win the gold medal."

To realize a dream, sometimes all you have to do is sit on the side of a dock, the stump of your leg dangling below, and realize that you are in the Olympics.

As du Toit sat there, the other competitors seemed not to notice her. But they know Natalie du Toit on the distance-swimming circuit.

"I would go as far as to give her a separate medal," said Russia's Larisa Ilchenko, who won the gold medal Wednesday.

"She's amazing," said Great Britain's Cassandra Patten, who won the bronze.

More than anything, du Toit is a swimmer. It was the water that helped her recover mentally from her accident, and it is the water where she now feels most at home.

When she swims, du Toit said, she feels less disabled than when she is on land. On the surface, she keeps breaking the hydraulics in her prosthetic leg, and she still hasn't been able to get a leg with sufficient springs to let her learn how to run again. On the surface, she said, there are daily reminders that she has only one leg.

In the water, however, it is different.

"You get into the water, and you can switch off," she said. "I can take my leg off, and I'm completely free. That is who I am."

The world learned her name Wednesday. But for a moment after the race, when du Toit was too weary to get out of the lake, she floated and thought about her journey. Yes, she said, she cried a little.

"This was my dream," she said, "and I fulfilled it."

No, du Toit didn't win a medal. But when she was finished talking, the volunteers at Shunyi Park gave her a wooden box, about the size of a backgammon game. When she unfolded it, it was a red and white etching that had a woman swimming.

The woman in the artwork had two legs.

Considering the moment, it didn't seem to matter.

TV schedule

TODAY

.5 a.m.-5 p.m. MSNBC

.8-11 a.m. Tele.

.10 a.m.-1 p.m. Ch. 8

.5-8 p.m. CNBC

.6-8 p.m. Oxygen

.8 p.m.-midnight Ch. 8

Detailed schedule, 8C

South African swimmer loses leg, finds dream 08/20/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:23pm]
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