SPORTS

Determined for Athens

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – The car that knocked Natalie du Toit off her scooter shattered her left leg but not her lifelong dream to swim for her country at the Olympic Games. «I think I am more greedy now to go to the Olympics,» the 20-year-old South African told Reuters during a break from her exhausting training schedule for the Games. The accident three years ago appeared at first to have dealt du Toit’s ambitions a devastating blow. «When I had my accident, I was lying in the road and I sort of knew I had lost my leg,» she said. Doctors amputated her lower left leg, but all through a rigorous rehabilitation program du Toit was itching to get back in the pool and into serious competition. Within months, she was back in winning form, qualifying for the national senior championships with victories in the 800m and 1500m freestyle at a provincial gala. But it was her qualification for the final of the 800m freestyle at the Commonwealth Games in 2002 that meant she captured the world’s attention as a disabled swimmer competing on equal terms with able-bodied rivals. Du Toit has become a role model for disabled and able-bodied people alike and was nominated this month for one of May’s prestigious Laureus awards – the Oscars of sport. A spot in the South African team for the Olympic Games would cap a phenomenal comeback. «I just wanted to carry on with my life and carry on doing what I did before the accident, have the same dreams, have the same goals. My accident has made me go for life a lot more, and really go out there and work hard to achieve what I want to achieve,» she said. Before the accident, du Toit was making a name for herself as an all-rounder in South African swimming, reaching the national finals in all strokes. As a 16-year-old, she narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Sydney 2000 Olympics in three separate events. But now du Toit is concentrating her efforts on making the 800m freestyle in Athens – and if all goes well she hopes to bring home a medal in 2008. Freestyle, less technically demanding than other strokes, allows her to use her powerful upper body to level the playing field against able-bodied competitors. The longer distance lets her make the most of another strength – stamina. «Obviously, the longer the distance, the better for me – and the less kicking involved in it and less technical aspects of the stroke (the better),» du Toit said. She swims or trains in the gym for more than five hours a day in a bid to reach peak fitness ahead of South Africa’s Olympic trials in Durban from April 16 to 21. South Africa has set a tough qualifying time based on the eighth fastest time achieved at the 2000 Olympics, and du Toit’s last timed swim was some 20 seconds off the mark. But she is confident she will be on the plane to Athens. «In the distance and the stroke that I swim, you are able to descend 10 seconds, 15 seconds at a time, so I am just going to go out there and work hard.» If she does not make the grade in Durban, she still has chances to qualify at meetings in Barcelona, Spain, and Calais in France later in the year.