Swimming Like Natalie du Toit

Haim Watzman

I’ve got some things in common with Natalie du Toit, a South African athlete competing in this year’s Olympics. We’re both swimmers. And we’re both amputees.

That’s where the similarity ends. Du Toit swims every 1,000 meters of her ten-kilometer race far faster than I can swim 500 meters on a good day. And she lost her left leg from the knee down after a motorcycle accident; a bout of Group A Strep I suffered nearly twelve years ago cost me all ten of my toes–a far less significant handicap. (Even when I had my toes, I didn’t get much thrust out of my kick.)

For me, toelessness is more of a convenient excuse than a handicap. When the other swimmers in my Masters group (in swimese, that means a team for older swimmers) at the Jerusalem Pool lap me, I have a ready excuse. In matter of fact, it’s doubtful whether not having toes makes a whole lot of difference. Du Toit, who is competing without a prosthesis, has to compensate not only for a weaker kick but also an imbalance in her body.

But it’s a thrill and an inspiration for me to see here there in the race.

When, one winter day, a strep bacillus and its progeny took over my body, causing general organ collapse and gangrene, I was a runner rather than a swimmer. After my recovery and amputation, I went back to running, and kept at it for four more years–including two half-marathons. In the middle of my third half-marathon, my right ankle gave out over the strain, and that was the end of running for me. That’s when I turned to swimming.

The week I came home from the hospital, Ha’aretz’s then dance critic–whose name I can’t place right now–published a farewell piece in which she revealed that she, too, was a toe amputee. She lost less than I did, retaining the key big toe on each foot after an automobile accident. But she went on to dance for years in the Israel Ballet. The orthopedist who’d done my amputation had told me I’d never run again, and I was looking for evidence to counter his claim. So I called up the dance critic and asked her how tough it had been for her. “It was clear to me that I’d keep dancing,” she said. “In fact, I didn’t start having aches and pains until I stopped.”

So I’m going to Masters Swim tonight. I won’t swim as well as du Toit with her one and a half legs but, like her, I’m not going to stop.

2 thoughts on “Swimming Like Natalie du Toit”

  1. Thank you for this story – I also find the Olympic swimmers very inspiring. I watched Michael Phelps last night win another gold medal – quite amazing. Here in Ithaca we have a yearly swim for the local hospice (across Lake Cayuga). This year 275 women swam across the lake (women only because it is organized as “Women’ Swimmin”). One of the women who swam this year had a double mastectomy last year. Also very inspiring. Keep on swimming!

  2. Haim : Enjoyed your tale .At 72 I still swim almot daily ,also go 16 miles twice weekly on my Treck racing bike and take my 16′ sea kayak out twice a week too after having 5 heart bypasses two years ago

    I have a super smart smart-mouthed grandson who is a picky eater to whom I invoked the name of Michael Phelps advising him that Michael uses up 4000 calories in each race and he consumes huge amounts of pasta daily while in training to wit Richard replied unimpressed :” I thought he ate whale blubber” Just can’t win.

    Keep up the routine

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