In the midst of her busy schedule yesterday – training in the pool from 5am to 7.30am, dashing off urgently afterwards to sort out a temporary passport, grabbing lunch, heading to the gym for an afternoon session, and then training in the pool during the evening from 5.30pm to 7.30pm – Natalie Du Toit found a little room to reflect on her life and times. But ask her to take stock and there's no shortage of material.
Much has been made this week, and indeed over the past two years, of Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter with the prosthetic blades who runs in the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester this weekend and whose crusade to make it to the mainstream Olympic Games has gained global attention. But if her renown may not be as great, Du Toit's achievements are second to none. Unlike Pistorius, who was not allowed to compete alongside able-bodied athletes in Beijing, this trailblazing South African swimmer has been there, done it, and worn the Olympic T-shirt. But her story starts long before 2008.
On 25 February 2001 the Cape Town native lost her left leg and very nearly her life when a car crashed into her as she was riding her scooter to school from morning swimming practice. She was 17. On 16 August last year, Du Toit placed her prosthetic limb by the shores of Shunyi Lake in Beijing and dived in to contest the Olympic 10km Open Water swimming race. The first female amputee to compete in an Olympic event, she finished in 16th place – then stayed on in Beijing for the Paralympics, claiming a haul of five gold medals.
Tonight Du Toit flies from Johannesburg to England. On Monday she swims in the 100m freestyle on the final day of the Paralympic World Cup. The distance and temperate water of the Manchester Aquatics Centre should come as some relief following the 25-year-old's most recent race: on 25 April, she competed in the 7.5km Vista Nova Freedom Swim. "It's from Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was in jail, to Bloubergstrand, part of Cape Town," Du Toit said, speaking from Johannesburg in between the resolution of her passport problem and her gym session. "It's basically a cold water challenge; the water was between 12 and 13 degrees for 7.5km. It's in the open sea, so there's sharks and that type of thing. The reason I did it was to support Vista Nova School, a school for cerebral palsy children."
Such is her modesty, this wonder of a woman did not mention that – as well as supporting the school and surviving the sharks – she emerged the outright winner of the race. She beat the first man home. Tyron Venter, by just under a minute. Oh, yes, and she broke the 20-year-old women's world record for a 7.5km open water swim, clocking 1 hr 35min 45sec. Du Toit laughed at the reminder. "For me, it's actually just a charity event," she said. "I wasn't racing it at all. I believe that it was a world record. I was just lucky to have perfect conditions."
Her self-effacement is genuine and greatly endearing. Her story is truly inspirational. A teenage prodigy of the pool, Du Toit swam for South Africa at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, aged just 14. Three years later she was hit by a car pulling out of a car park. "I've lost my leg; I've lost my leg," she recalled having screamed. Her left leg was still attached but the bones were splintered and muscles ruptured. It was amputated at the knee a week later.
Five months on, Du Toit was back in the pool, going round in circles. A year later, having learnt to compensate for her lost limb with a greater use of her left arm, she stole the show at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. She won the 50m and 100m freestyle races for disabled swimmers and qualifying for the final of the 800m freestyle on the main programme. At the closing ceremony she received the David Dixon Award as the outstanding athlete of the Games, ahead of Ian "Thorpedo" Thorpe with his six swimming golds.
In May last year Du Toit secured Olympic qualification after finishing fourth in the 10km Open Water World Championships in Seville. The world might have marvelled at her simply making it to the start line in Beijing but the Capetonian was disappointed with 16th. "Yes, I reached the Olympics, but I wanted to be top five," she said. "My goals have been carried forward to London 2012."
Du Toit is funding her swimming by working as a motivational speaker back home. "I say, 'If I'm able to go out there and achieve a dream, then anybody can do it'," she said. "I don't think of myself as being disabled, or able-bodied. I just want to be myself and go for my own dreams and goals. For me, there's really no line."
Five to watch: Paralympic stars in action this week
OSCAR PISTORIUS Known as the Blade Runner because of his carbon-fibre prosthetics, the South African sprinter competes in the 100m and 200m on Sunday.
ELLIE SIMMONDS Appointed an MBE and named as BBC young sports personality of the year after winning double Paralympic swimming gold in Beijing aged 13.
DAVID ROBERTS Welsh swimmer won four Paralympic golds in Beijing to equal Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson's record haul of 11.
TATAYANA McFADDEN Won four medals in wheelchair races for the United States in Beijing Paralympics.
SARAH STOREY Mancunian who has won Paralympic golds as a swimmer and a cyclist.