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Du Toit back atop the podium at Paralympic Games

Associated Press Published: August 30, 2012

LONDON (AP) — 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.

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