The tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goals;
The tragedy of life lies in not having goals to reach for.
It is not a disgrace not to reach for the stars,
But it is a disgrace not to have stars to reach for.
It is ironic that just before Natalie Du Toit's accident, a coach gave her a poem. It did not mean much to her until after her accident. Now she can recite it in her sleep.
When Natalie Du Toit races, you know. You know because the crowd is on its feet. And it has been like that since the 2002 Commonwealth Games; the event that catapulted Du Toit into the world spotlight. Suddenly everyone knew who Du Toit was.
At the event she won gold in the 50m and 100m Elite Athletes with Disability (EAD) events and then she made history by qualifying for the 800m able-bodied freestyle final at the games. While she was not close to winning the event - she finished eighth – she was the first athlete with a disability in the modern era of swimming to qualify for an able bodied event. As a result she was awarded the first David Dixon Award for Outstanding Athlete of the Games. (Picture: Natalie Du Toit winning a gold medal at the IPC Championship in Durban 2007.)
Since then she has gone from strength to strength. In 2003, competing against able-bodied swimmers, Du Toit won gold in the 800m freestyle at the All-Africa Games, as well as silver in the 800m freestyle and bronze in the 400m freestyle at the Afro-Asian Games. She narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics in Athens in 2004, but during the Paralympics, she won one silver and five gold medals. In the same year, her courage and achievements were acknowledged with a nomination for the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year 2004 with Disability Award. Last year she took six gold medals at the IPC World Swimming Championships in Durban, and at the 2006 Commonwealth Games she repeated her previous performance by winning the same two golds as she had in Manchester.
It is no surprise then that she was named last year as part of a provisional South African squad to compete at the Beijing Paralympics this year.
Born on the 29 January 1984 in Cape Town, Du Toit started her swimming career early. By the age of 9 she won all her age group events - U9 backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. In 1998, at 14, she competed at the Kuala Lumpur Games. Locally she was already lighting up the pool as she set record after record, dominating her races and despite not qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, everyone in the swimming world knew that Athens 2004 would be Du Toit’s games.
However it was not to be. While driving to school on her scooter after swimming practice, a car hit Du Toit and changed her life forever.
Du Toit’s leg had to be amputated. While she said at the time her swimming career was the furthest from her mind, she was very aware that she had lost her leg. "I kept saying, 'I've lost my leg, I've lost my leg,'" remembers Du Toit.
Doctors tried to save her leg, but it was no use and they amputated through her left knee and inserted a titanium rod into her broken femur.
Not one to sit and mope and be pitied, when her team-mates came to visit she pulled back the sheets and show her half leg. The effect was shocking, with some of her mates fainting. She says she did it because while she liked the visits she hated the pity.
"I just wanted to get back to life again - swimming four hours a day - and I wanted to be able to walk again so that I would be able to do things by myself," she says.
In fact she started swimming a mere three to four months after her leg had been amputated. She had not even learnt to walk again! Her gaol: the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
Du Toit was 18 years old. Today she is one of the fastest swimmers in the world and an inspiration to millions of people.
“Everyone goes through good and bad times in life. However, we always tend to focus on the good things and celebrate them; we ignore the bad things, which unfortunately often end up hindering us. My story is a personal journey of how I have learned to face my good and bad situations and deal with them in a manner that I understand would be the best. What I have done (and am still busy doing) to overcome my adversity and the lessons I’ve learned along the way, I believe holds true regardless of your age, sex, race, religion, nationality or financial standing. It all comes from self-belief - an exceptionally powerful tool if we could just learn how to use it correctly every day."I have always had a dream to take part in an Olympic Games, and losing my leg didn't change anything," she says.
Du Toit is joined in the squad by Handri de Beer, Shareen Sapiro, Emily Gray and Adri Visser. Over the next few months Rolling Inspiration will be profiling all our Paralympic swimmers who have been nominated to compete in Beijing.
Natalie’s Swimming Achievements: