Two women, two powerful life stories, two sets of world-class Games: Poland's Natalia Partyka and South Africa's Natalie Du Toit are the first two athletes in history to compete at both the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games in the same year.
|Natalia Partyka competes in the women's team table tennis event of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Photograph by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images.|
Partyka, 19, was born without her right forearm and hand, and according to the New York Daily News, her childhood athletic goal was "defeating her sister in their ultra-competitive table tennis showdowns." By the time she was 11, the striking blonde beauty was the world's youngest Paralympic athlete, competing in both the singles and team women's table tennis competitions in Sydney. Within four years, she took gold as a singles player and silver in the team events at the Athens Paralympics, and spent the next four years racking up gold medals and first-place cups in national and international events for players with disabilities. Then, earlier this year, she scored her place in the sport's able-bodied top ranks when she defeated the world's number six player, Li Jia Wei of Singapore, in a match at the World Team Championships. With a rank of 147 th in the world, she was chosen by Poland's national Olympic coach to compete in its team events. Reuters news service quoted her as saying, "A lot of people were surprised, but only at the beginning.... I think now it's normal; all the players know me."
In China, where table tennis is the unofficial national game, Partyka is dubbed "The Respectable Player." The timesonline.com described her style as combining "silky strokeplay with a considerable tactical brain," and Reuters calls her footwork "excellent." She doesn't consider herself disadvantaged in able-bodied competition, contending to Reuters, "Maybe I'm not so good with body balance, but I have strong legs, so really it's not so difficult." In the Olympics, she scored well, winning five matches, losing six, and tying one. "It is my first but I hope not last [Olympics]," she was quoted as saying. "In London, I would like to take part in singles." Before leaving for the Games, she said, "All the time I play with able people, so I like more the Olympics, but I'm so happy I'm going to play in the Paralympics, and I hope I can win."
|Natalie du Toit, who took part in both the Olympics and Paralymics, prepares for Olympic competition. Photograph by Wessel Oosthuizen.|
Born in Capetown, Natalie du Toit was competing on the international stage by the age of 14, going to the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998. Her website states that by age 16 she had set multiple national age-group records in swimming medley events, and in 1999 barely missed qualifying for three events at the Sydney Olympics. She was considered an easy favorite to qualify for Athens, until, at age 17, she was hit by a car while driving her motor scooter home from swimming practice. The accident nearly destroyed her lower left leg, and it was amputated soon after. According to The Australian News, she was back in the water just a few months after the crash, relearning her sport from the beginning. She couldn't snap her legs together for breaststroke, and said, "If I tried breaststroke on one leg, I went round in circles."
Her recovery didn't take long. She instinctively started turning her right foot inward, working it like a rudder, and her left arm became more powerful to compensate for the missing leg.
At the 2002 Commonwealth Games, du Toit won both the multi-disability 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events in world-record time and became the first Commonwealth Games competitor with a disability to qualify for the final heat of an able-bodied event-the 800-meter freestyle. Two years later, at the Athens Paralympics, she took five gold medals and one silver. After several more wins in 800-meter events, she switched to open-water events, which don't demand a fast start or flip turns. At the 2008 World Open Water Championships in Seville, the now 24-year-old kicked up big waves in the swimming world by taking fourth place in the able-bodied 10k freestyle, buying herself a ticket to the Olympics.
On August 20, du Toit competed in the Olympic open-water 10k, taking 16th place with just 1:22.2 between herself and the gold medalist. She commented to The Australian newspaper, "For my first Olympic race, I am a bit disappointed. I didn't have such a good race.... Placing 16th is not too bad, but I wanted to come top five."
She said of racing, "For me it's not about being able-bodied or disabled-it's all the same to me-I get up and I race. I am not a campaigner; it's just my personal dream and my personal goal."
Editor's note: Look for full Paralympic highlights in the November 2008 issue of The O&P EDGE.