LONDON (Reuters) - In non-Olympic years, Natalie du Toit spends a lot of time giving motivational talks to schools, companies and churches in South Africa.
She talks of her life, how everyone should have a goal and tells her audience they should never give up on their dreams.
This year Du Toit has concentrated on fulfilling her childhood dream — swimming at the Olympics — and her success has proved an inspiration way beyond South Africa and the world of swimming.
Du Toit lost her left leg in a motorcycle accident in 2001, a year after narrowly failing to qualify for the Sydney Games.
This month, the 24-year-old qualified for the Beijing Olympics in the 10-km open water event and she could become the first amputee to win a medal at a Summer Games for nearly 60 years.
“It’s been wonderful, everyone has been amazing. Congratulations have come from swimmers all over the world,” Du Toit told Reuters.
“It’s a positive story, everyone knows about it. Even the hotel staff here congratulated me,” she said from Manchester where she was taking part in the Paralympic World Cup.
Du Toit grew up in Cape Town and was identified as a potential Olympian in her early teens. But her career appeared to have been cut short in February 2001 when a car leaving a parking lot hit her as she rode past on her motor scooter.
Her left leg was amputated at the knee after it began to turn gangrenous and a titanium rod was inserted into her femur. Three months later, she was back in the water.
Learning to swim with one leg was tough — she tried breaststroke and found herself going round in circles, or hitting the side wall because she was over-compensating.
Du Toit, who wears a prosthetic leg out of the pool, had been a medley swimmer but soon decided to concentrate on long-distance swimming because there is less kicking.
At the 2002 Commonwealth Games she became the first amputee to swim in the finals of a major able-bodied competition when she made the final of the 800m freestyle.
“When I turned for the final 50 meters, I realized most of the other swimmers had finished and I could feel the crowd roaring for me. It was splendid,” Du Toit, still a schoolgirl, said at the time.
Du Toit was named the outstanding athlete of the Games despite Australian Ian Thorpe winning six golds in the pool.
She missed out on qualification for the 2004 Athens Olympics but competed in the Paralympics the same year where she won five gold medals and a silver.
She also won gold when competing against able-bodied swimmers in the 1,500m freestyle at the All Africa Games in Algiers last year.
“I really just look at my leg as something I have had to get over while I get on with the rest of my life,” she said.
This year she reduced her public speaking commitments and concentrated on fulfilling the Olympic goal she has harbored since she was six. She spent a month in Australia working with coach Dennis Cotterill on sprinting, her weak point.
“I have a strong upper body, I’m an arms swimmer and I always have been. But in the sprints I can’t pick up the pace, it’s pretty difficult to go much faster,” she said.
“When you look at Ian Thorpe, his legs and arms work together in one motion. I do everything with my good leg and don’t even kick with the other.
“I cramp more than I used to and at the end of the 10-km my hip muscle is really tired.”
Another four weeks of hard grind, swimming up to 19 kms a day, preceded the Seville 10-km event in which the top 10 qualified automatically for the August 8-24 Games in Beijing.
Open water swimming is renowned for the no-holds-barred approach of the competitors. Du Toit got dunked under the water with the rest at the turning buoys although she found it harder to recover “because my hips go down and I have no kick.”
In the sprint finish she held on to finish fourth, 5.1 seconds behind the winner Larisa Ilchenko of Russia, and burst into tears for the first time in her career once her achievement had sunk in.
The last amputee to win an Olympic medal was Hungarian pistol shooter Karoly Takacs, who taught himself to shoot left-handed after losing his right hand in a hand-grenade explosion and won gold at the 1948 and 1952 Games.
Du Toit could be joined on the South African team by double amputee Oscar Pistorius, who last week won an appeal against a ban on him competing against able-bodied runners while using carbon-fiber blades attached to both legs.
Pistorius, who won two medals at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, wants to race in the Olympic 400 meters but needs to run a qualifying time before late July.
Du Toit says she will believe she is actually going to Beijing only when she sees her name on the official team list.
“I don’t think it will really sink in until I get home and am sitting around with my friends,” she said. “At the moment I’m just going with the flow.”
Editing by Clare Fallon