Ready, willing and able

Natalie du Toit has become the first disabled athlete to qualify for the Olympic games. (GETTY IMAGES)


It was a complete surprise. Everyone was so focused on her compatriot Oscar Pistorius that nobody noticed Natalie du Toit dive into the pool. But the splash she caused certainly did not go unnoticed.

This week the South African swimmer became the first disabled athlete in the illustrious 112-year history of the Olympics to qualify to compete at the world's most watched sporting event.

And what makes the feat even more remarkable is that while Pistorius uses prosthetic carbon-fibre blades as legs – deemed to give him advantage over able-bodied runners – Du Toit swims with just one leg.

The puzzle is how did she manage to qualify for the 10km open-water event at the Olympics? "You can do anything you put your mind to," answers Du Toit.

"I understand I am disabled, because I cannot run and do certain things that other people can, but when you get to a race or in training everyone is equal, so you get in and try your best.

"What counts in the water is that you have done the hard work beforehand and you have a dream and you go for it."

The story of the 24-year-old is one of sheer hard work and dedication, right from when she first got into the pool 18 years ago as an able-bodied six-year-old. "I started swimming at the age of six, before that I absolutely hated the water," says Du Toit.

"My brother used to swim and I was the little sister who just went to watch him and after seeing him swim up and down, I thought maybe I should try this and one day I got into the pool and started swimming.

"I began to enjoy the training part of it, the idea of going to practice, working hard and coming away satisfied that you have achieved something.

"It progressed from there, tour to tour and I just got better and better. And in 2000, when I was 16, I just missed out on qualification for the Sydney Olympics, but then the next year I had the motorbike accident."

On her way from school on her scooter, after a morning training session, Du Toit was knocked down by a woman who had taken a shortcut through a car park. She suffered a serious injury to her left leg. Doctors tried for a week to save the limb, but in the end were forced to amputate.

The accident was a double-edged sword. It effectively destroyed what would have been the most promising years of competition for a swimmer, but instead introduced to the world an athlete of tremendous determination and will power – one who, just months after her amputation, was back in the pool and training.

"After the accident I never really had any doubts that I wanted to get back to swimming. I did not say: 'Oh I cannot do it now; tough thing.' I wanted to get back and do well," she says.

"Swimming just takes up so many hours of your life, you know you swim two to four hours a day, at the moment I am swimming five, six hours a day. There is that and school – that is your life – and I just wanted to get back to that, back to the hard work."

It was the hard work that paid off: during the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Du Toit, who was then 18 years old, won both the multi-disability 50m freestyle and the multi-disability 100m freestyle in world record time.

She also made sporting history by qualifying for the 800m able-bodied freestyle final – the first time an athlete with a disability had qualified for the final of an able-bodied event.

She narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics in Athens in 2004, but during the Paralympics being held in the same city, she won one silver and five gold medals. At the 2006 Commonwealth Games, she repeated her performances of Manchester four years earlier.

And last year Du Toit went one better when she won gold competing against able-bodied swimmers in the 1,500m freestyle at the All Africa Games in the Algerian capital, Algiers.

This year, in chasing her Olympic dream, which she has harboured since she first entered the water, she travelled to Australia to add a new dimension to her already arduous training programme.

"In the past I have being training the same as standard pool swimmers – that is about 10km to 12km a day, but in February I went off to Australia for a month," says Du Toit.

"I travelled to the Gold Coast and went to the Miami Swimming Club to train under Dennis Cotterell.

"I wanted to get away from everything and concentrate solely on training, but also wanted to see what other distance swimmers do in a place other than South Africa because this is still new to us.

"I had a fabulous time. We trained from 5am until 8pm and it was great. My times started improving and a week after I came back I participated in the nationals for the disabled and I recorded my best times and broke a couple of records.

"A couple of days later I had the able-bodied pool nationals and did my best times there as well. Now I am doing 14km to 15km a day so I am putting in quite a bit of mileage, but I think it has paid off in the end."

It certainly has paid off. Du Toit qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics after finishing fourth out of 50 swimmers in the 10km open-water race at the Open-Water World Championships in Seville, Spain. Her time was 5.1 seconds off the winner in a race that will make its first Olympic appearance in Beijing.

The Cape Town-born swimmer, who is also a motivational speaker in her spare time, uses her life story to inspire people.

She urges her audiences to go out and be the best they can be, not to let anything get them down and tells them hard work will always pay off. For her inspiration though, she looks to her biggest fans.

"I think it is important to have family and a swimming coach behind you, together with people who are positively rooting for you – if people around you are positive, you are positive and that in itself is a motivation," says Du Toit.

So how is she feeling after qualifying for the Olympics?

"It was emotional after the race and I am over the moon, but beyond that it has not quite hit me as yet," she says from a phone in Seville. "But the hard work starts when I get home and then everything should sink in.

"It is my first Olympics so I am going to enjoy it, do my best and whatever comes about, comes about. And even though I have qualified this will not be the end of it. I am going to try again in four years time," says Du Toit.

An attitude of a champion and living proof that anything can be achieved through hard work and dedication. Du Toit will be saluted by the world at Beijing this August. And deservedly so.