I remind my children to stretch out their arms and legs to move as much water as they can while swimming. That's the easy way. When you don't have two legs, it takes a lot of hard work and desire to compensate.
10K on One Leg
At the age of 16, Natalie du Toit of Cape Town, South Africa was already a world-class swimmer. She narrowly missed qualifying for the 2000 Olympics in three events. A year later, she was hit by a car while driving to school on a scooter, and her left leg was amputated at the knee. Du Toit began training again as soon as she recovered. She switched her focus to long-distance races. And she's going to Beijing. Last month, du Toit made the Olympic team in the new 10K Open Water Swimming event. She is the first amputee ever to qualify for the summer Olympic games.
Her secret? Well, there is no secret, she says, no physical or technical trick to compensate for the loss of a limb. Just hard work and obsessive determination. "There's no real compensation. You just do the hours in the swimming pool, you do the hours of racing and you do the hours of mental preparation. You just go out and give it everything. I don't even think of one leg, two legs. When you're racing in an able-bodied competition you're all equal and you go out there and try your best, and that's what counts.* "Swimming is my passion and something that I love. Going out there in the water, it feels as if there's nothing wrong with me. I go out there and train as hard as anybody else. I have the same dreams, the same goals. It doesn't matter if you look different. You're still the same as everybody else because you have the same dream."
*Younger athletes are following du Toit.
Top Amateur Athlete
Last year, at the age of 15, Jessica Long of Baltimore, Maryland won the Sullivan Award for the USA's top amateur athlete. It was the first time ever that the award was given to a paralympic athlete. Long was born in Irkutsk, Russia without fibula bones. She was also missing several bones in her heels and feet. Both her legs were amputated at the knee when she was only 18 months old, after she was adopted by an American family.
Long began swimming at age ten, and in 2004 won three gold medals at the Paralympic Games. She was only 12 years old at the time (or three, considering she was born on February 29th)! Long was named Paralympian of the Year at the 2006 games. Long also participates in gymnastics, skating, and rock climbing. Read more at her website.
Qian Hongyan of Kunming, China, also known as "Basketball Girl" lost both legs in a traffic accident in China when she was three years old. Her parents were unable to afford therapy or prosthetic legs, so they used a partially-deflated basketball to cushion her pelvis as she maneuvered around using her arms. Quian's plight made international news. The attention brought the interest of a group of doctors, who fitted her with artificial legs when she was eight years old.
After watching a disabled sporting event in 2007, Qian was determined to become an athlete. She joined the South of the Clouds swim team and has her sights set on participating in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. Qian will be 15 years old by then. Her coach says she is a promising swimmer, but his goals for her are more conservative. Qian swims about 2000 meters a day in training. With no legs.
*See also: 9 People Who Did It Anyway