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South Africa's Paralympic star makes her Olympic debut

Paralympic swimmer makes Olympian breakthrough

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JAMES CHRISTIE

Globe and Mail Update

May 3, 2008 at 11:52 AM EDT

The headlines about a South African amputee athlete trying to crash the party at the able-bodied Beijing Olympic Games had all gone to a man romantically dubbed the "Blade Runner," but the honour of making the breakthrough goes to a bold amputee swimmer named Natalie du Toit.

The Cape Town swimmer, who lost a leg in a motor scooter accident at 16 after narrowly missing out on the Sydney Games in 2000, finally fulfilled her dream of making in to the Olympics when she finished fourth against the best open water swimmers in the world in a 10-km world championship and Olympic qualifying race off Seville, Spain Saturday.

With the top-10 getting into the Olympic field, du Toit placed fourth in 2:02:07.8. The top continental swimmers, not already in the top-10, also qualified.

Andreina Pinto off Venezuela grabbed the Americas bonus spot finishing 17th. Karley Stutzel of Victoria finished 33rd on Saturday but still has another qualifying chance.

Larisa Ilchenko of Russia successfully defended her world title clocking two hours and 02:02.7 minutes. Cassandra Patten of Britain took the silver in 2:02:05.8 and Yurema Uquena of Spain was third in 2:02:07.2. The men's 10-km qualifier is on Sunday.

Du Toit's story is one of persistence and determination. In 2005, when her bid to make the 2008 Olympic team took shape, P.H. Mullen wrote dramatically of her bold bid in the magazine Swimming World. He said that as a youth du Toit had "lit up the pool, setting multiple national age group records in both medley events and dominating many of her races. At 16, she nearly qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics in three events. People sensed great things were in store... in 2004, Athens could become her playground. Then in 2001, those plans abruptly changed. Done with morning workout, du Toit eased her motor scooter into Monday rush-hour traffic and headed to school.

"Just down the street from her pool, a careless driver exiting a parking lot ran directly into her left leg. The scene was gruesome; the devastation was immediately obvious. "I kept saying, 'I've lost my leg, I've lost my leg,'" remembered du Toit. Her teammates rushed to her. Traffic snarled. The scene: total, horrible chaos. A motorcycle policeman racing to the accident crashed headfirst into a truck and had to be airlifted to a hospital.

"It would have been merciful if du Toit had fainted. But this is a girl who confronts reality without blinking. She stayed awake."

Doctors could not save her mangled leg but she told teammates who came awkwardly to hospital with condolences that she hadn't given up her dream and wanted to be back inthe pool with them, training four hours a day.

Du Toit comes from a working-class background, Mullen wrote, "and maybe that's where she learned her stubbornness and determination. Mother Deidre, is a receptionist and father, David, is a foreman (she has an older brother André). Even the family dogs suggest a serious, no-nonsense attitude: Binga is a boxer and Storm is a rottweiler."

Du Toit back into the pool within months of the amputation. In 2002, only a year after the accident, she went to the Manchester Commonwealth Games where Paralympic events were being counted as official medal events for the first time. She qualified along with able-bodied swimmers for the 800-metre final. She was voted the athlete of the Games for the entire Commonwealth and is a multiple gold medal winner as a Paralympian.

"I have always had a dream to take part in an Olympic Games, and losing my leg didn't change anything," she said.

South Africa sprinter Oscar Pistorius who is a double amputee, is also trying to qualify for the Olympics. He has been banned from competing because the carbon-fibre blades he has attached to his legs when he runs are deemed to give him a mechanical advantage. Du Toit does not use a prosthetic limb when swimming.Pistorius has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) about the decision and a verdict is expected within two weeks.

Stutzel, fourth in the event at the 2001 worlds, was 33rd and Zsofi Balazs, 17, of Toronto was 42nd. There will be a second chance to qualify for the Olympic Games at the end of the month at a test event in Beijing.

"We're happy with Karly's swim," said Stutzel's coach Ron Jacks of Victoria. ''She was in the mid 20's heading into the final lap but she mistimed her water stop and fell behind. But overall she had good tactics. It was a strong field with a lot of world championship and World Cup medallists.''

Balazs's inexperience was a disadvantage. ''She got muddled up in the first turn and never recovered,'' said Jacks. ''Her inexperience took its toll."

Canada has two entries in Sunday's men's race with Jarrod Ballem of Calgary and Philippe Dubreuil of Sherbrooke, Que.

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