Rio de Janeiro – At the beginning of the year, Charl du Toit and his Stellenbosch training group were asked to write down their theme for the year. Du Toit would no doubt have grinned as he wrote down “Smiling Lightning”.
He was smiling again on Friday morning after he became South Africa’s first athlete to win two medals at the Rio Paralympics. His smile was all the broader because both of those medals were gold, Friday’s gold coming in the 400m in a Paralympic record of 51.13 seconds, a street ahead of Venezuela’s Omar Monterola (52.93secs) and Sofiane Hamdi (53.01secs), the silver and bronze medallists.
Du Toit, who has cerebral palsy, was smiling at the start, he was almost smiling with 100m to go, and he was certainly smiling at the finish. Did he smile all the time.
“Not always. I’m privileged enough to be part of a wonderful training group,” said Du Toit. “At the beginning of the year we had to put down our theme for the year – each athlete had a theme – and mine was “Smiling Lightning”. I just wanted to go out there and enjoy every second of it. I run full out. The smile is just a bonus.
“When I go through the bad times you won't see me smiling. I have had a couple of injuries, illness and my uncle got shot and passed away a couple of weeks ago so it’s been a bit rough, but the smile is back on my face. Coming out of an athletics family, my parents will be very proud. Hopefully I have made the country very proud.”
His uncle Johan passed shortly before Du Toit left for Rio, having spent three months in ICU after being shot in a robbery. He dedicated his world record and medal in the 100m to his memory. He may not have had a smile on his chest when he woke up with a bit of a lurgy that some in the South African team have caught this week. Ernst van Dyk said he had struggled with it.
“I’m very thankful for this wonderful opportunity to race today. I woke up this morning not feeling too great, but luckily one of doctors has been amazing and sorted me out. At 5am she woke up and helped me get rid of some stuff in my chest, so I’m sorted. I’m very thankful for the wonderful medical team as well. My coach and I spoke about the race beforehand. I said I would go out conservatively in the first 200m and then accelerate from there. That was the race plan and I’m just very thankful that it panned out.
“To be honest with you, I think it is in every athlete’s nature to be better than they can be. I’m grateful I’m at this age I have achieved two gold medals. Never in my wildest dreams would I have dreamed I would have done this. I’m looking forward to the road ahead. I train with some of the best athletes in the world, like Ilse (Hayes), Arnu (Fourie), Fanie (Van der Merwe) and Dyan (Buis).”
Anrune Liebenberg could not add to her silver medal from the 400m as she finished fourth in the 200m final. Dyan Buis qualified for tomorrow’s 400m final, while Emily Gray will be the first reserve for the women’s 400m backstroke as the ninth-fastest qualifier.