August 24, 2008

We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Beijing Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.

She was standing in the road. The sun glared overhead and the pavement simmered and the air was thick with humidity and Natalie du Toit stood there, next to the golf cart that would take her to the start of the 10k marathon swim. She had a towel over her shoulders and a yellow bathing cap on her head with her race number, 23, scrawled on the side in black magic marker. The sun beat down on her as she talked to a group of people who'd gathered. She looked strong -- as you'd expect in a woman who was about to swim up and down the Olympic rowing basin for two hours -- but as I walked past her on my way to the stands I wondered why there was no one around to take charge of all this; no coach or manager to shoo away the gawkers so that Natalie could sit down in the shade and rest, for God's sake, drink a little Gatorade and gather her focus for the start, less than 30 minutes away.

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 Michael Phelps, Natalie du Toit wasn't accompanied by a bodyguard, a few agents, a coach, and two biomechanics experts. And if Rowdy Gaines was at the Shunyi Rowing-Canoeing Park, reporting live for NBC, I didn't see him.

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.

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