Polish teen to compete in Olympics and Paralympics

Aug. 10, 2008, 10:30 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Natalia Partyka serves by nestling the pingpong ball in the crook of her arm, just above the stump, then tossing it into the air.

The 19-year-old, who was born with a right arm that ends just below the elbow, is part of the Polish team at the Beijing Olympics - and the first table tennis player ever to compete in both the Olympics and the Paralympics.

"I'm not thinking too much about that but it's like a dream come true," she said. "It's a new beginning."

Disabled athletes have occasionally competed in past Olympics. Partyka is joined in Beijing by South Africa's open water swimmer Natalie du Toit, who lost her left leg in a motorcycle accident seven years ago and will be competing in the 10-kilometer event without a prosthetic limb.

Others have included legally blind runner Marla Runyan, who competed for the U.S. in Sydney and Athens, and Neroli Fairhall, a paraplegic from New Zealand who competed in archery in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Partyka, who started pingpong at age 7 following her older sister, laughed when asked whether it was more difficult for her to play.

"For me, no," she said this week after a training session at Peking University Gymnasium. "Maybe I have not-so-good body balance, but I have strong legs, so really it's not so difficult."

Despite the disadvantage, Partyka is an energetic player with an attacking style and will compete in the team competition with two of her Chinese-born teammates. She's ranked No. 147 in the world but had a notable win over No. 6 Li Jia Wei of Singapore during the world championships in February.

Wearing dangly earrings and a gold necklace with a pingpong paddle charm, Partyka is ebullient about just being in Beijing, beaming when she talks about the Olympics, the upcoming Paralympics, attending last week's opening ceremony and her country's chances in the team event.

"I hope we're going to play well and maybe we will win something," she said. "We will fight and see."

Poland, ranked No. 12, will have a tough battle in Group C against No. 3 Hong Kong, No. 6 Germany and No. 13 Romania. Games begin Wednesday.

Partyka, who won the gold at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, said people who don't know her are surprised when they first see her at tournaments. But now, "All the players know me so it's not a problem," she said.

She will be hanging around in Beijing after the Olympics to defend her title at the September event for disabled athletes.

The teen from the picturesque seaside city of Gdansk will return home this fall to begin college, where she will major in physical education. But she has big plans for the future.

"I always wanted to play table tennis and I love to play and I would like to play as long as possible," she said, setting her sights on the individual and team events at the 2012 London Games.