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It is seldom that a sporting great gets to go out on a high. The end usually comes sooner than expected and wanted and retirement is forced upon the athlete, the exit less dignified than it should and could have been. That will not happen with Natalie du Toit.
After winning her 13th gold Paralympic medal, she said she could not be tempted back for the Games in Rio, whether those be Paralympics or Olympics. She has hinted at having a difficult time in her life over the last eight months or so, but is bound by her participation agreement with Sascoc not to speak about what it is. It is understood that she is not best pleased with her treatment by the authorities, the belief that she has not been supported as well as other athletes, but she has held her contractually-bound tongue. It is likely that she will loose it once those binds come to an end, but that will not diminish her achievement in her three Paralympics.
From 2004 in Athens when she was an almost reluctant Paralympian, competing just three years after she had lost her leg in that 2001 accident, to the 2012 Games, where she was roared on by a capacity crowd at the Aquatic Centre, Du Toit has been a prominent force and face of the sport. She grew to love the Paralympics in Athens, where she was the most high-profile athlete. She became South Africa’s most successful Paralympian yet when she won the 200-metres individual medley last night. She is, as she admits, rubbish in the backstroke, and took the time on her back to have a look at the big screen as she swam to gold. “I touched for the backstroke and saw myself on the screen and I sort of watched myself go from a close up to a far view of eight lanes,” said Du Toit. “It was quite interesting as a swimmer watching yourself on a screen, watching your race as you’re actually doing it.”
She will be looking forward to doing a lot more watching now that she does not have to train for five hours a day. She was not at her sharpest coming into the Paralympics, having only given herself five weeks to sharpen up her sprinting prowess. It was not enough for the 50m freestyle sprint on Wednesday, but it should be enough for today in the 100m freestyle, her last race. Her starts are now her weak point, thanks to the new blocks with a starting ramp elevated on the back of them.
“I think I always have a slow start so I’ve kinda given up with that now. I actually practised it a lot before coming here and it’s still bad, so I think we just gave up on that,” laughed Du Toit. “To walk away with a medal will be very special with it being the last competition. Hopefully afterwards I won’t cry. I’m going to give it everything.”
Hilton Langenhoven won silver for South Africa in the 400m for the visually impaired last night. He said he had struggled in the back straight with the wind, but was happy with his personal best over the distance.
It was his first Paralympics over the distance. He won three medals in Beijing, in the 200m, long jump and pentathlon, an achievement that moved Paralympic legends Fanie Lombaard and Ernst van Dyk to call it one of the greatest sporting successes they had witnessed.