Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Olympic flame extinguished; fire burns still

Well, the Olympics are over, the flame has been extinguished, the athletes are home with their medals and memories, and the world turns its attention to Vancouver in 2010 and London in 2012.

Over the past 17 days, we heard a lot about the exploits of Michael Phelps, Dara Torres, and Usain Bolt and their ilk, each of their accomplishments touted in the press as "historic achievements". What we didn't hear too much about was the real history in the making, 24-year-old South African swimmer Natalie Du Toit, who placed 16th in the 10km open water swim.

Normally, placing 16th in a field of 24 wouldn't get too much attention. But what makes Ms. Du Toit interesting is that she is the first amputee to compete in the Olympics. Last spring, her countryman Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who uses a pair of high tech blades for legs, got a lot of press when he lobbied the IOC for permission to use those high tech prosthetics to run in track events. Although his argument eventually prevailed over those who thought his bionic legs gave him an unfair advantage, he rather anti-climatically failed to meet South Africa's criteria for inclusion on its Olympic team and stayed home. While he got all the headlines, Ms. Du Toit was quietly plodding along, coming fourth at the World Open Water Championships in Seville last May, earning her berth on the swim team with minimum fanfare.

It wasn't always like this. Eight years ago, when she was 16, Ms. Du Toit was a promising junior swimmer who had competed in the Commonwealth Games in Malaysia and had been identified as a potential star in South Africa, a country not known for its swimming prowess. She just missed qualifying for the Sydney Olympics in 3 events, and was determined to make the team for Athens in 2004. But leaving practice one day in 2001, she was riding her scooter down a Cape Town street on her way to school when a motorist taking a shortcut through a parking lot plowed into her, damaging her left leg beyond all repair. Although doctors tried for the better part of a week to save it, Du Toit has said in interviews she knew her leg was lost at the accident scene, before the ambulance even arrived, such was the damage.

A lot of people would have given up their Olympic dreams after that, or focused their attention on the Paralympics instead. She did not. Within 18 months of the amputation at the knee, she was back on South Africa's swim team, having qualified for the 800m event at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. She became the first "disabled" person to compete at an elite able-bodied meet.

It soon became apparent to her though, that the loss of her leg would be a problem for short, pool-based distances at such an elite level, since the margin of victory is measured in 100ths of a second, and a strong launch into the pool, turns, and kicks throughout a race are vital to success. She needed an event that depended more on endurance and upper body strength, and less on pushing through with her legs. When the open water event was added to Beijing's lineup, she found her place.

She went to Beijing hoping for a top 10 finish, but, as is so often the case, things didn't go exactly as planned. She had equipment problems and got hung up for a bit on a marker buoy that cost her valuable time. As it was, she finished in 2 hours, 49.9 seconds - a minute 22 seconds behind the gold medalist. Still, she outpaced 9 able-bodied swimmers, and was given no slack by any of her competitors, who lauded her tenacity and ability in the lake. They don't see her as "disabled". To them, Du Toit is simply a fierce competitor, who, on any given day, has the potential to leave them all behind and win.

Du Toit is staying on in Beijing for the moment, preparing for September's Paralympics, where she will defend the five gold she won in 2004. She has become the first athlete to compete in both the Olympics and the Paralympics, a truly historic milestone in an industry that often manufactures history for marketing purposes. She will also have to deal with the politics of some, who feel she should not have competed in the Olympics, because the Paralympics are just as important (but for the differently-abled). While she may well take home more gold in the coming weeks, she is already looking towards London in 2012, determined to show that a "disabled" athlete has just as much potential to be on an Olympic podium as any other elite athlete. I'm looking forward to seeing her realize that dream in four years time, and achieve yet another historic milestone.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

I've been memed!

Well, that's one way to get me blogging more often. It seems I can't resist a challenge - or a dare. Anyone who's met me knows that! So I've been tagged by Megan (see sidebar) to meme. Don't ask me, I don't quite understand the "meme" concept, but the challenge is clearly stated on her blog. It seems all I have to do is answer a few questions - where's the challenge in that?

A) Four places I go over and over: Montreal, Barcelona, Point Reyes and London.

(B) Four people who e-mail me regularly: Judy, Lindsey, Megan and Anne.

(C) Four of my favorite places to eat? I haven't tried the tapas place yet, but it's on my list of things to do come fall. Other than that, I've pretty much given up on local dining. When I'm on the road, I like to go to Bagel Etc. in Montreal, The Real Jerk in Toronto, Cafe Shafali in Ottawa, and I hate to admit it, but I can't walk past a Keg without going in. Oh, and those frites stands in Amsterdam. It's like they have a whole different kind of potato over there.

(D) Four places you’d rather be? Although I'm pretty happy here in Name of Town Withheld, if I could wake up tomorrow totally trilingual, I'd move to Barcelona in a heartbeat. I'm also a big fan of San Francisco, Isla Mujeres, and I'm looking forward to Iceland.

(E) Four TV shows I could watch over and over: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Firefly, and Alias. Yes, I am a Joss Whedon geek AND I like infuriating puzzles.

This tag is supposed to be passed to four people I know in person, and they're supposed to copy the questions, write their own answers, and tag four more people, but Megan already tagged the folks I most expect would respond. Still, I'll add Judy and Lindsey to the list and see if they pick up the meme challenge (tame though it may be).