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Swimming

Amputee jumps right back in

August 19, 2008
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BEIJING - Natalie du Toit looked like any other athlete when she walked into the Bird's Nest, carrying the South African flag at the opening ceremonies.

But now it's time to compete. And when du Toit takes off her prosthetic left leg tomorrow to vie for a medal in the first open water race in Olympic history, she'll surely be swimming for everyone who's ever struggled with a disability, been told something can't be done, experienced being shuffled off to be with their own kind.

"It is the first time marathon swimming will be in the Olympics, so we are all on the same path," she said. "We will all be on the same footing when we start the race."

Hardly. The 24-year-old lost half her left leg in a horrific accident seven years ago, but she refused to let it derail her hopes of competing against the world's best athletes.

Instead of settling for Paralympics (though she will remain in Beijing after the games to take part in that competition as well), du Toit learned how to compensate for her missing limb.

Swimming, she said, makes her feel whole again.

"I can get in the water and be free of the prosthetic limb," she said in an interview earlier this year. "It's just me."

Unlike countryman Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter who failed in his attempt to run in the Olympics on carbon fiber prosthetics, du Toit swims without any sort of device. The legs aren't as important in open water as they are in pool races; she uses her thick, powerful arms to keep pace.

While Pistorius spent a good deal of time this year tied up with legal matters, du Toit qualified for the Olympics like everyone else in her sport: She took fourth at the world championships in Spain, fulfilling a dream that began when she was 6 years old.

"I just want a top-five finish," she said. "It will be a tough race because everyone worked so hard, and I am just looking forward to it. Hopefully the training will pay off. I've been training harder than ever." (AP)

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