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Winning hearts

Her handicap is her strength and her indefatigable spirit was there for everyone to see. V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM charts out the heart-warming tale of Natalie Dutoit, the young South African swimmer.

REDEFINING THE motto of Olympics itself ! Well, that is what the South African swimmer Natalie Dutoit is essentially trying to, even if not winning medals in the Afro-Asian Games swimming competition. This one-legged wonder was the cynosure of all eyes. Not that she is a legend of sorts or the `glamour girl' of the sport. But for the simple fact that she was standing on one leg and ready to take the plunge. Quickly, the sports lovers were up from their seats to follow her progress in the 200 m freestyle race. That she finished fifth (2:12.57) well behind the Chinese gold medallist Yingwen Zhu (2:06.45) was a different question. What was important was she stood first in terms of winning hearts.

Dutoit represented the other face of a human being - battling for honour in an era where the survival of the fittest is the order of the day. Pitted against the fittest from both the Continents, this 19-year-old Genetics graduate from Cape Town University simply enjoyed yet another stint in the waters. "I just love to be in the pool," she says without any hesitation. Her left leg had to be amputated after an accident on February 26, 2001, when a car, which zoomed out of the parking slot hit Dutoit who was on a motorbike. Dutoit, who obviously didn't know of the imminent danger of losing her left leg showed indefatigable spirit to come out of the mental and physical trauma. That it took just two weeks for her to get back reflects her grit and determination .

Thanks to the moral support of her brother and parents, she was encouraged by her coach Karoly von Torosto get back to the competitive circuit in just three months.

How does she feel about the turn of events? "Well, let me trace my romance with the sport. I used to accompany my brother to the pool since I was five years and started to make a splash from the age of six. Then, it was just a passion and I was obviously too young to take it up as a profession," Dutoit started off. The swimmer, who was once ranked World No.34 and first in the age group category, feels that the sport is a very glamorous discipline in South Africa. "So, as I became a regular in the domestic circuit, the competition for me was more of an enjoyment. I just trained and went for those outings," she said . What were her impressions of the accident? "Well, on that fateful day, I was on my way back from training. And, little did I realise that such a tragedy was lurking around. For two weeks I was out of action. The doctors conducted quite a few operations to save my leg. But when there was no option left I agreed for amputation ," she says with absolutely no emotions.

Quite interestingly, those two weeks continue to be her most memorable in terms of the moral support she got from the swimming fraternity. "We were flooded with phone calls and e-mails enquiring about Dutoit's well-being. There were many regular visitors at the hospital. In fact, those were gestures that lifted her morale," recalls her coach Toros. "I just tried to be positive in my real life. There is no point in pondering about what happened. I should thank the media for all the good words they have written about me. I am really grateful for all those who stood by me in that hour of crisis," she recalled.

And when she came out for her first competition in Cape Town, the response was "terrific". "The fourth-placing in the 400 m freestyle didn't stop the sporting fraternity to say all those encouraging words," Dutoit says. The gesture of the South African swimmers carrying her on their shoulders after the event was something, which is still etched in her memory. The amazing fight back continued at a higher level as in four months she was second in the National championship back home in 1500 m event. That Dutoit stands apart from the rest of the crowd in contemporary sport is indisputable for the sheer magnitude of her spirit. Fate may be cruel. It makes or mars the career of many a human being. But, Dutoit seems set to challenge that. Her next aim is a berth for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

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