- 9 May 08, 01:42 PM
MANCHESTER: One of the biggest stories in disability sport in the last week has been South African amputee Natalie du Toit's qualification for the open water event at the Olympic Games in Beijing.
The 24-year-old finished fourth in the 10k qualifying event in Seville last weekend, although her national federation still have to rubber-stamp her selection.
A truly inspiring woman, Du Toit lost her left leg in a motor scooter accident in 2001 but came back to qualify for the 800m final at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002.
She then made her Paralympic debut in Athens in 2004, winning five gold medals and has rewritten the history books in her S9 category.
But after an initial introduction to open water swimming in 2003, she last weekend made her own bit of history alongside able-bodied athletes.
Du Toit has been a woman in demand since she arrived in Manchester for the swimming events at the Paralympic World Cup, although she told me that reaching the Olympics still hasn't sunk in yet.
But having travelled straight from Seville to Britain, she admits that when she finally reaches her Cape Town home it will be an emotional time.
"Everyone has been so positive about my achievement and I hope that it can help inspire other athletes," she said.
"Even before my accident, I preferred the longer distances swims. The Paralympics does not have long distance events so there I am concentrating on the sprint events, even though sprinting does not come easily to me.
"Paralympics and Olympics are the same to me. I just go out and race and give everything each time. There certainly isn't a shift in focus."
Although fiercely determined, Du Toit is far from brash, and she certainly is not the type to make bold Olympic predictions. Anything further than qualifying would be a bonus.
Du Toit resists the temptation to be compared to her compatriot Oscar Pistorius who has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport after being banned from competing in able-bodied competition because of his running blades.
"I am not allowed to swim with aids but Oscar needs his to run," she said. "But everyone should have equal opportunities to compete.
"When you have a passion, you can forget about your problems. For me it is swimming, it's different for everyone. But nothing can get you down if you are doing what you are passionate about.
"The Paralympics is still a big part of my life and events like the Paralympic World Cup help me realise that there are people who are a lot worse off than I am.
"I still struggle to walk up stairs and I can't run but the people involved in disability sport make it a memorable experience and it is something that I would not turn my back on."
Back in 2000, before her accident, Du Toit was given some words of inspiration by a South African team manager, which has now become her motto.
It reads: "The tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goals - the tragedy of life lies in not having goals to reach for.
"It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars but it is a disgrace not to have stars to reach for. So aim high, dream big dreams and remember, everything is possible if you just believe."
Natalie du Toit is featured in this week's 5 Live Olympics Podcast.
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