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One-legged swimmer dives into open water

Aug. 18, 2008, 11:18 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Natalie du Toit looked like any other athlete when she walked into the Bird's Nest, carrying the South African flag at the opening ceremonies.

But now it's time to compete. And when Du Toit takes off her prosthetic left leg Wednesday to vie for a medal in the first open water race in Olympic history, she'll surely be swimming for everyone who's ever struggled with a disability, been told they can't do something, experienced being shuffled off to be with their own kind.

"It is the first time marathon swimming will be in the Olympics, so we are all on the same path," she said. "We will all be on the same footing when we start the race."

Hardly.

The 24-year-old South African lost half her left leg in a horrific accident seven years ago, but she refused to let it derail her hopes of competing against the world's best athletes.

Instead of settling for Paralympics (though she will remain in Beijing after the games to take part in that competition as well), Du Toit learned how to compensate for her missing limb.

Swimming, she said, makes her feel whole again.

"I can get in the water and be free of the prosthetic limb," she said in an interview earlier this year. "It's just me."

Unlike countryman Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter who failed in his attempt to run in the Olympics on carbon fiber prosthetics, du Toit swims without any sort of device. The legs aren't as important in open water as they are in pool races; she uses her thick, powerful arms to keep pace.

While Pistorius spent a good deal of time this year tied up with legal matters, du Toit qualified for the Olympics like everyone else in her sport: She took fourth at the world championships in Spain, fulfilling a dream that began when she was 6 years old.

"I just want a top-five finish," she said. "It will be a tough race because everyone worked so hard, and I am just looking forward to it. Hopefully the training will pay off. I've been training harder than ever."

No one would argue that point.

Du Toit was an emerging star in the pool when she swam at the 1998 Commonwealth Games as a 14-year-old. She was aiming for a spot in the Athens Olympics when tragedy struck in 2001.

After a training session in her native Cape Town, she was headed to school on a motorbike. She collided with a car. She looked down to see her left leg still attached, but with the bones shattered, the muscles ripped apart. Doctors fought desperately to avoid amputation, but finally gave in a week after the accident.

The leg was removed at the knee.

"I remember waking up later and asking my mother when the operation was going to be," she said. "She told me it already had happened."

Throughout her recovery, du Toit was driven by a desire to get back in the water. Six months later, she was swimming again.

"It was amazing," she said. "It felt like my leg was still there."

But Du Toit failed to qualify in the pool for the 2004 Athens Olympics, struggling to keep up in a sport where the legs provide much of the power on starts and turns.

Then, her career took a promising turn.

Open water was added to the program for Beijing. There's no lanes, no flips at the end of each lap. Du Toit was more competitive when the dove in with a pack for a grueling race (10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles, for these games) that relies as much on tactics and willpower as it does on the perfect stroke.

Things can get downright nasty as the swimmers jostle for position, and they've been known to emerge from the water with plenty of cuts and cruises.

Du Toit doesn't shy away from the rough stuff that goes on beneath the surface.

"People out there do punch, kick and you've just got to get through all that and not get bogged down by it," she said. "That's the mental challenge behind it."

Du Toit will not be the first disabled athlete to compete at the Olympics, or even in Beijing. Natalia Partyka, who was born with a right arm that ends just below the elbow, made the Polish team in table tennis. Like du Toit, she will compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics.

No disabled Olympian was more successful that American gymnast George Eyser, who won three golds and five medals overall while competing on a wooden leg at the 1904 St. Louis Games. His left leg was amputated after a train accident.

Still, it's quite unusual for someone with a major disability to compete in the Olympics, especially in a sport such as swimming where the legs provide much of the power.

No wonder du Toit was picked by the South African delegation to carry the country's flag at the opening ceremony.

"What if I can't carry it, what if I trip and fall, what if ...," she wrote on her blog.

Du Toit handled the duties just fine, though it did take a bit of a physical toll.

"The standing hurt a little, but it was all worth it," she wrote. "I had tears in my eyes when the flame was lit. I can't describe it. I'm so glad I was part of that."

On Wednesday, du Toit will have to make sure someone takes care of her prosthetic limb while she's in the water, retrieving it from the start area and returning it to her at the finish.

Other than that, she expects to be treated like anyone else.