She was standing in the road. The sun glared overhead and the pavement simmered and the air was thick with humidity and
Five minutes went by and then 10 and still she continued to stand there. She took the towel from her shoulders and draped it over her head against the sun. She shifted her weight from her left leg, from the carbon prosthesis that ended in the perfectly shaped, flesh-colored outline of a foot, to her right. Du Toit has a high performance set of legs; it's just that the two of them didn't quite match. And anyone who thought that might've stopped her from becoming an Olympian doesn't know her very well. "I want to compete against able-bodied athletes," she'd said. "I don't want anything free."
Looking at her, I couldn't help but flash back to the previous week's swimming competition, over at the Water Cube. The 10k was just another race in the same program, but it was being held in a parallel universe. Here there was no architectural icon to compete in, no glowing cube with psychedelic lighting, turbulence-free gutters, and ozone filtration. Instead there was a flat, murky expanse of rowing water dug out of a field. There was no theme music here either, no cavorting mascots, no cute Chinese girls in spangly costumes playing the bongos. Unlike
At the start, du Toit stood again. She stood on a red floating platform next to her 24 competitors, all of whom were able-bodied and most of whom she'd beaten before. I watched her take off her prosthetic leg to dive in. Du Toit didn't win a gold medal that day, let alone eight of them. But gold is a standard as well as a distinction, and as Natalie du Toit hit the water, it was obvious at that moment that she and Michael Phelps had everything in common.