Du Toit's message goes way beyond her finish at Olympics

BEIJING -- Michael Phelps may have 14 gold medals and universal acclaim as the world's greatest swimmer, but he doesn't have to pause to feed himself in the middle of a race due to its length or fend off competitors who are elbowing him in the side, kicking him in the head or grabbing his ankle to slow him down. Or deal with jellyfish stinging him or sharks circling.

He also has two legs with which to kick.

Such is not the case for South African open swimmer Natalie du Toit. She swam the women's 10-kilometer marathon Wednesday despite losing the lower half of her left leg in a motorbike accident seven years ago. The first female amputee to compete in an able-bodied Olympics, she finished 16th, which disappointed her but hardly seemed to matter to anyone else. The staff at the open-water venue even presented her with an elaborately framed drawing and asked for her handprint and autograph. "She is special," one of them said.

"She's not just an inspiration to open-water swimmers and not just to sportsmen," Great Britain silver medalist Keri-Anne Payne said, "but to anybody in the whole world that you can do anything you want."

"I would even go as far as awarding her a separate gold medal," Russian gold medalist Larisa Ilchenko said. "I have enormous respect for her. It is an exceedingly hard event. Just looking at these people inspires you."

Du Toit was a talented enough freestyle swimmer to compete for South Africa at the age of 14 in the 1998 Commonwealth Games and narrowly missed qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She was training to qualify for the Athens Games when her life changed forever in a motorbike accident that reportedly burst her left leg open like a tomato.

The accident required an amputation so severe, it left no muscles in the remaining stump. She was back in the water within six months. Still, she found herself not only exhausted after a short distance, but also unable to swim in a straight line due to the lack of rudder her leg had provided. Over the years, she compensated for the missing leg by developing her left arm, which is noticeably larger than her right. She also switched from the pool to open water.

"Swimming is something where I can take my leg off and be completely free in the water," she said. "That's who I am."

Open water differs from the other swimming events in that it is held in, duh, open water, but also without lanes. Swimmers jockey for free space and drafting position and the battles get intense enough -- one athlete tried grabbing the ankle of bronze medalist Cassandra Patten at the finish line -- that yellow cards are issued like in soccer. And then there are the water conditions. Du Toit has swum among stormy white caps, sharks and jellyfish, but Wednesday's 10K was held in calm, flat water.

"The conditions were great; I was the problem," said 16-year-old American Cloe Sutton, who finished 22nd. That was six spots and almost 90 seconds behind du Toit. "She's just incredible. She beat me and she has one leg." Sutton was on the verge of tears when speaking with reporters, but cheered herself with the pride of being an Olympian at age 16 and predicted many returns to future Games. "You will see me for the next 20 years. I'll be like Dara Torres. You won't be able to get rid of me."

If Sutton wants inspiration along the way, she need look no further than du Toit.

"My message is not just to disabled people, but to everyone: You have to work hard," du Toit said. "I've been through a lot of ups and downs. I just missed out on qualifying for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I had a motorbike accident. Those are the bad things, but I've also had good things happen as well and the key is to use the negatives in a good light so I could come back from my accident and say, 'I can still do this if I work hard.'"

After all she's been through to reach the Olympics, du Toit said she felt like bursting into tears just before the race started. She said she had hoped to finish in the top five, but stupid mistakes cost her. She was exhausted and disappointed at the end of the race, but her spirits were lifted by the attention from a conference tent filled with media. And she's not done in Beijing. After these Olympics end, she'll swim in the 100 free, 400 free, 100 back and 200 IM at the Paralympics.

"It's not about being disabled or able-bodied -- it's all the same to me," she said. "I just get up and I race."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.