Du Toit back atop podium at Paralympic Games

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Impending retirement has done little to dim the lofty ambitions of Natalie du Toit, one of the most decorated athletes competing at the London Paralympics.

Since losing her left leg in a motor scooter accident 11 years ago, the South African swimmer hasn't stopped pushing the boundaries of disabled sport.

First she qualified to race in a final for non-disabled swimmers at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and then she became the first amputee to compete in an Olympic Games, in 2008.

Now, in her last major competition before quitting swimming to study, Du Toit is attempting to win a staggering seven gold medals in the pool to add to the 10 she already has from the Athens and Beijing Paralympic Games.

She has started well.

On Thursday, she used a strong final 50 meters to win the S9 women's 100 butterfly on the opening day of the games, in a time of 1 minute, 9.30 seconds. That wasn't one of seven world records set in the Aquatics Centre that kicked off the 10-day meet but for an athlete who prefers the longer, strength-based events, Du Toit was more than satisfied.

"It's great to have that one over,'' Du Toit said, minutes after leaving the pool to giant roars. "It's the last time I'll swim the 100-meter butterfly - that's the third (Paralympic) final and three golds. Tomorrow's the 100-meter backstroke, which I think is more of a challenge. I have to concentrate on that one now.''

The events will certainly come thick and fast for Du Toit. Assuming she reaches the final in each of the other six disciplines - the 50, 100 and 400 freestyle, 200 individual medley, 100 backstroke and another category in the 100 butterfly - she will be competing in 12 races over the next seven days.

Returning to sprint events in the pool hasn't been easy for the 28-year-old Du Toit, who counts former South Africa President Nelson Mandela as one of her admirers.

After narrowly missing out on reaching a second straight Olympic Games - she was beaten by countrywoman Jessica Roux in world open water championship in Portugal this year - she has changed from racing over 10 kilometers to less than 500 meters.

"In the last five weeks, I've tried to sprint a bit, add to the sprinting program. But I've been concentrating only on the 10-kilometer event for the last two years and it's been tough. As you see, I just don't get going.''

Indeed, after removing her prosthetic leg, she had the slowest reaction time of all eight competitors at the start, and she turned in second place behind American Elizabeth Stone. The strength emanating from her huge shoulders and powerful arms allowed to her to take the lead 20 meters later and she held off Sarai Gascon of Spain, runner-up by 0.49 seconds in a European record.

Eleven golds is already some feat - and six more will leave her joint third in the career list of Paralympic gold-medal winners.

"I have come out here and it's actually the first in three Paralympics I'm able to swim seven races and something hasn't come up. So for that, it's really not about all the golds,'' she said. "It's about going out and taking part. What to expect, I have no idea.''

Comparisons with Oscar Pistorius, South Africa's more famous amputee, invariably crop up, especially around Paralympics time. It's something Du Toit doesn't particularly like but it's hard to avoid.

Both are head-strong, unwilling to accept the limitations forced upon them.

Du Toit was one of South Africa's most promising swimmers when her life took a dramatic turn in 2001. Returning to school on her scooter after an early-morning training session, she collided with a car and sustained massive injuries to her left leg. Doctors tried for a week to save it but they had to amputate at the knee.

It took a huge amount of mental strength to come back from that, but there she was at the Beijing Games seven years later, swimming in the 10km open water race. She finished 16th out of 24 competitors and was disappointed, but proud.

"Be everything you want to be'' is the motto on her website and one she has always abided by.

She said it seems strange that four years later she is playing out her last moments in the pool. But retirement at 28 is something she said she'd do for a while. There is no going back now.

"It's sad but it's something that I will walk away from knowing I have done everything possible,'' she said, with a big grin. "And I can walk away saying I couldn't have done anything better, anything different. I gave it everything, I had every opportunity, everything that I wanted - more or less.

"Six, seven, eight hours a day training, it's impossible to study. That's one thing on the cards, that and work. And just to give back in a little way as well.''

On a day when 28 gold medals were up for grabs, China was top of the medals table with six golds and 15 medals. Australia was second with three gold, silver and bronze medals and host nation Britain was third.