At the end of last year South Africa hosted the 2006 IPC Swimming World Championships at Kings Park Aquatic Centre and Hazelmere Dam in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal.
Once again the disabled squad did South Africa proud, picking up 10 medals in total. South Africa also finished 13th in the standings, up from 19th place at the last championships in 2002.
For Natalie du Toit, a swimmer who needs no introduction to Rolling Inspiration readers, the championships ended much as they began: with gold medals. Du Toit broke two of her world records and picked up gold medals in the 100m butterfly, the 100m freestyle, the 200m individual medley, the 400m freestyle and the 50m freestyle. All these races were swum in the S9 category, for swimmers with a single amputation.Her sixth gold came in the 5km open water swim at the Hazelmere Dam, which was the final event of the championship. The field included 36 men and 20 women. Eight of the nine swimmers in the South African squad competed in the event which had no classification. Du Toit not only won gold, but finished third overall with a time of 1 hour 2 minutes and 40 seconds.Du Toit, who has swum a few open water races, said after the race, “My time was pretty good, so I’m happy. The water was very, very still which was great. I tried to stay with the leading male. He started off without a cap so I didn’t think he was part of the race at first. I then tried to stay with the second guy the whole way, but he pulled away on the second lap,“ said du Toit after swimming two laps of the 2.5km course.
However, du Toit’s most exciting performance at the event must have been in the S9 50m freestyle. Winning her fifth gold medal of the championships, she clocked a time of 29.20 seconds, beating April Kerley of the USA (30.14 seconds) and Russia’s Irina Grazhdanova (30.51 seconds).At the halfway mark, however, she found herself neck-and-neck with Kerley, but then, in her typical fashion, with loud cheering from the crowd, she pulled away to win by a length. Said du Toit afterwards, “I felt really good again. I started safe and then picked it up towards the end. April really gave me a good fright, but I’m happy with the way I swam.”
Du Toit was also pleased with her women's S9 400m freestyle swim, clocking her fastest time in this event ever. She won the race in a time of 4 minutes 27.76 seconds, a full 18.55 seconds ahead of rival Canadian Stephanie Dixon and her teammate Darda Geiger, and just missing her own world record by four seconds.
Said du Toit, “I'm very happy with my race. It was the fastest swim I've ever done in a disabled 400m freestyle. My 4 minutes 23.96 seconds was done competing with able-bodied swimmers, so I'm happy with the achievement.”Besides du Toit’s six gold medals, Tadgh Slattery won a silver medal in the men’s SB5 100m breastroke. Shareen Sapiro, Handri de Beer and the young-up-and-coming sensation and Beijing hopeful, Charl Bouwer, all won a bronze medal.
Bouwer won his bronze in the men’s S13 400m freestyle. He also finished fourth in the men’s S13 100m backstroke. The 16-year-old swam in a time of 1 minute 07.09 seconds. Swimming in the men’s S6 50m butterfly heats, Sibusiso Mogale and Hendrik van der Merwe placed 10th and 16th respectively. Mogale and van der Merwe also swam in the men’s S6 50m freestyle heats, finishing 20th and 17th.
In the other mens races, the veteran of the team, 35-year-old Tadgh Slattery, finished 10th in the S6 50m butterfly heats and 9th in the men's S6 200m individual medley. Unfortunately in the same race, Mogale was disqualified for a false start. Tiaan du Plessis swam into 11th place in the men’s S8 50m freestyle heats and also competed in the men's S8 400m freestyle, finishing seventh.
South African women swimmers won more bronze, Sapiro in the women’s S10 100m backstroke, and de Beer in the women’s S12 400m freestyle. Sapiro was also placed 14th in the women’s S10 50m freestyle heats, while Emile Gray finished 18th in the women’s S9 50m freestyle heats and was placed 16th in the women's S9 400m freestyle.
Apart from du Toit, the other star attraction of the championships was 14-year-old Jessica Long, an American, who was adopted from Russia as a 13-month old baby. She won an astonishing eight gold medals.
Durban has hosted the FINA World Cup for three years in succession and so the facilities were more than adequate to meet the needs of swimmers with a disability. The personnel are also highly experienced in hosting large-scale events. (Picture: Gold medallists Natalie du Toit (RSA) and Sergei Punko (BELARUS) after winning the 5km Open Water swim during the 2006 IPC Swimming World Championships at Kings Park Aquatic Centre in Durban.)