Paralympic World Cup: Du Toit splashes out with four world records

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The Independent Online

The star of those memorable Mancunian Commonwealth Games was back in town yesterday. Natalie du Toit was on another mission to push back the sporting barriers.

The star of those memorable Mancunian Commonwealth Games was back in town yesterday. Natalie du Toit was on another mission to push back the sporting barriers.

Three years ago the student of genetics and physiology from Cape Town stole the Commonwealth show in Manchester, winning the 50m and 100m freestyle races for disabled swimmers but also qualifying for the final of the 800m freestyle on the main Games programme. It was a momentous breakthrough: the first time an athlete with a disability had reached a Commonwealth Games final.

Du Toit was 18 at the time. Just 16 months earlier, her left leg had been amputated above the knee after she was knocked off her scooter by a car. At the closing session in the City of Manchester Stadium, she received the David Dixon Award as the outstanding athlete of the Games. She was a unanimous choice, ahead of Ian Thorpe and his six golds.

Yesterday the young wonder of a woman who sank the Thorpedo was making another splash in the Manchester Aquatics Centre. On the third and penultimate day of the Visa Paralympic World Cup, a ground-breaking event for disability sport, Du Toit broke two world records in the morning session, clocking 1min 2.76sec in the heats of the 100m freestyle and 29.47sec in the heats of the 50m freestyle. In the afternoon she returned to improve her 100m record to 1min 1.68sec and her 50m record to 29.35sec. She also won the final of the 100m backstroke, in 1min 10.68sec.

"I didn't expect four world records," she said. "We had our able-bodied nationals last month and I've had a bit of a break." At those South African championships, Du Toit sadly failed to make the qualifying cut for the 800m at next year's Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. She remains a member of the national training squad, though, and her ultimate ambition is still within her sights: to swim with the big fish in the Beijing Olympics. "I believe that I can do it," she said. "Yes, I am at a disadvantage, but it just means I have to work that bit harder. I've got to take about 20 seconds off my 800m time and I'm going to work hard and train hard towards that.

"I don't think of myself as being disabled or able-bodied. I just want to be myself and to go for my own dreams and goals. For me, there's really no line."

Du Toit's heroics in Manchester three years ago have gone a long way to blurring the line between disabled and able-bodied sport. Significantly, though, she is not the only star of this inaugural World Cup - with sold-out crowds and national television coverage, itself a major advance for the Paralympic movement - pushing beyond the perceived margins.

The track-and-field programme in the Manchester Regional Arena this afternoon features Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who races with carbon-fibre blades below both knees. The 18-year-old schoolboy from Pretoria emerged as the star of last summer's Para-lympics in Athens, scorching round 200m in 21.97sec. He had only taken up athletics six months earlier.

Last month, Pistorius reached the final of the 400m at the South African able-bodied championships, finishing sixth in 47.34sec - a time that would have won every Olympic final up to 1932. He has been invited to compete in the 400m in the IAAF Grand Prix meeting in Helsinki in July. It would be the first appearance by a disabled athlete in a grand prix event, although Pistorius first has to win round his father, who wants him to stay at home for his final-year exams.

Like Du Toit, Pistorius has a chance of making it across the sporting divide and on to the Olympic stage. If the young South Africans do succeed, they will be taking a giant leap in the modern arena but also bridging a gap to the past.

Murray Halberg, the New Zealander who won the Olympic 5,000m in Rome in 1960, and Hal Connolly, the American who won the hammer in Melbourne in 1956, both had a withered arm. George Eyser, the winner of three gymnastics gold medals in St Louis in 1904, had a wooden left leg. The original limb was amputated after he was run over by a train. "I knew there was a Hungarian swimmer with a wooden leg who made it to the Olympics," Du Toit said, at the end of her busy day back in British water. "My coach is Hungarian and he keeps telling me about it. There are people out there who, unfortunately, say, 'You are disabled; you can only be disabled'. But people have shown in the past that you can go out and do your best and reach the Olympics. I hope I can do it too."