On 08/08/08, the Olympics begin in Beijing. They like that number and consider it auspicious. Lucky even. The Olympics are, of course, more than just that.
Take a look at this piece by Rohit Brijnath carried over the weekend in the Straits Times.
Its called :
Natalie is courage, she is self-belief.
Often in sport, we speak of it, this idea of human spirit, this triumphant mesh of hope, courage, self-belief, this staring down of adversity.
It is hard to define this spirit, but we know it when we see it. Because it makes us feel puny, because it lifts us, because it reminds us of the potential of the human race.
This spirit is Karoly Takacs, a gifted pistol shooter of the 1930-50s, losing his right hand in a grenade accident, learning to shoot with his left, and eventually winning Olympic gold.
It is Cliff Meidl, a plumber, hitting a power cable with his jackhammer, getting a 30,000 volt shock that cracked his skull, burnt his toes, resulted in three cardiac arrests and 13 surgeries on his legs that were almost amputated. Ten years later, he competed at the 1996 Olympics as a kayaker.
And it is this young woman.
Her name is Natalie du Toit, she is 24 years old, and she owns a laugh that is almost musical. And in August, at the Beijing Olympics, when the women line up for the 10km open water swim, you will see her.
She will be hard to miss because she will be the only one there with one leg.
Look at the leg, it is okay, she is used to it. On the phone from South Africa the other day, we spoke of it. Never has an athlete with such a disability qualified for the Olympics, and it is understandable you will look at it.
But eventually get over the leg. It is part of her, yet she is more than that. She does not want to be seen as a symbol for anything, she is not bridging a divide, between abled and disabled athletes.
She is just, she says firmly, “an athlete trying to get better”.
What Natalie du Toit is telling us is, please, look at my ability, not my disability.
Natalie did not make the Olympics because a car ran into her in 2001, which led to a through-knee amputation. She made it because it was a dream she would not get go of, a dream held on to so ferociously that even a car could not run over it.
“The Olympics have nothing to do with my disability,” she says, “it’s a dream I had as a six-yer old.”
Four months or so after the amputation, she was back in the water where you cannot see her leg or the lack of one, back in the water where she is herself.
There is a cheerful matter of factness to her voice, an unwillingness to pity herself or sell a sad tale, so you must imagine her world then. A body unable to balance itself, unable to push itself off the wall, unable to kick during sprints to the finish, unable to do what it once naturally could.
And then wonder at the self-belief that surged through her, her appetite for work, her ability to wear pain, her stubborn refusal to accept her quest was over. It was an acceptance of a challenge that was, well, Olympian.
Ask her about inspiration and she points to Lance Armstrong. “He cycled when it was snowing, in the cold, when others were scared of getting injured, ” and she is not referring to teh cyclists cancer but his intensity. “It’s about putting in that little extra,” she says.
And so she did, slowly, steadily the mind constantly teaching the body to adapt.
Long ago, she said of her return to the water : “It was not nice seeing little babies beat you. So I just had to train harder … get up with the guys … get up with the seniors … get back to the level I was swimming at before.”
She got so far that a year later, she was in the 800 metres freestyle final at the Commonwealth Games, an astonishing feat for no disabled athlete had swum in an able bodied event.
And then three weeks ago, in Seville, she qualified for Beijing by coming fourth in the 10 km open water world championship.
On her website, he motto reads, “Be everything you want to be”. And because she has lived it all these years, she is finally where she wants to be. At the Olympics.
Natalie, who does not use a prosthetic and compensates with a thrower’s upper body, says, “I never thought of being disadvantaged”, but she is.
Which is why coaches, she said, told her to try the 10k, “because there are no turns and not much sprinting so you don’t lose as much.”
Its a race that demands from the mind, for as she says” after one hour you’re already aching, you start to hurt, but everyone is hurting, and you have to raise your game”.
Quitters are not invited to this contest where elbows fly under water, and at the World Championships, Du Toit exited with a black eye and says that one of her male teammates had a cut cornea.
And then there is the seaweed, which is the only time her voice raises an octave, for she says, “I hate seaweed”, believing as she does that sharks occasionally linger there.
Ask her about Beijing, and gold is never spoken of. “I just want to improve”. she says.
A medal ? “If it comes it will be a bonus”. What she is clear about is her effort. “I will try my utmost,” she says, and that we believe.
So when the Games commences, remember this name, look for this swimmer. She will probably be easy to recognise, only because of the wide smile on her face.
After all, a medal would be nice, but Natalie du Toit will know that just being in Beijing is proof of the power of a child’s dream and the strength of a woman’s spirit.