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Q&A: Natalie du Toit

2009-02-13 11:12
Tank Lanning with Sport24 Star of the Year 2008 Natalie du Toit (Lee Warren, Gallo Images)
Tank Lanning

Johannesburg – Have you ever taken a wrong turn at the Gillooly’s intersection? Well, if you ever do, I dare you to get back onto the N3 facing Pretoria …

What is this moron on about I hear you say … The point is I was late for my meeting with our Sport24 Performer of 2008, Natalie du Toit, and her manager, Anna Rita Strydom. Twenty five minutes late to be exact!

Did she throw a hissy fit and storm off? Not even close. In fact, she bought our photographer coffee while making small talk with the fellow in the Planet Fitness Platinum coffee shop, and when I did eventually arrive, she offered me coffee!

And that is exactly the type of person she is. She was amazingly humble and gracious in the acceptance of our inaugural award, and also more than happy to give up some of her day to speak to Sport24.

So I took advantage of the time and as the chat progressed so I become more and more pleased that Natalie du Toit’s name will always be the first one the trophy. She really is a true champion.

Below then, the full Q&A with Sport24’s Performer of 2008 as voted by our readers …

What events are on the cards for you this year?
Up front, it will be to drop around 8kg in weight! There was the expected post Olympic come down and thus two months of doing nothing, and enjoying the Christmas holidays, so this year will see me off to slow start competitively. I am getting back into my training now, though, and with the focus being on the Olympics, it will be a gradual build up to that. I will participate in the world champs though.

Is another full Olympics achievable?
Absolutely. It’s a goal of mine to come top 5 in the open water 10km swim, so after my relatively disappointing swim last year, where my cap came off and I was unable to taking anything in at the feeding stations, I certainly still have that as a goal. I will also be aiming to compete in the 800m and 400m pool swims.

Where the horror stories we heard about your experience in Beijing true?
Sadly, yes. It was pretty shambolic. I did not want to make an issue of it but it obviously got leaked to the press. My swim was held over an hour’s drive from the team hotel, and no provision was made for me to get there. My sponsor, BHB Billiton, the same people who would organise a hotel for me for the time between the Olympics and Paralympics as nothing had been put in place, eventually came to the party and paid for a hotel close to the venue. But there was still nothing from management in terms of helping me get my kit to the venue. So we did that all ourselves. And yes, the kit was as bad as it was made out to be. It was thick and very inappropriate for the temperatures we were to experience in Beijing. It was also very plain, and did not even have the Olympic rings on it. And given the amount of time we were meant to be wearing it, there just did not seem to be enough. In fact, Crocs were without doubt a best kit sponsor, and seemed the only people keen to try and make us look good and perform to the best of our abilities. And given the other goings on amongst my swim team-mates, it all just added to the lowering of team morale. Not ideal when the world’s eyes are firmly focused on the event.

It might seem a silly question given the above, But which was more enjoyable – Paralympics or the Olympics?
Far and away the Paralympics. We had a team spirit going during the Paralympics, and would do things like go down for meals together as a team, which never happened during the Olympics. We were friends. During the Paralympics we could all basically hang out with the chef de mission, and use the phone for interviews, while during the Olympics there seemed to be an “us and them” - management vs team - mentality.

What are your thoughts on London as the next Olympic venue?
It will never surpass Beijing in terms of organisation – that was just amazing, especially amongst the volunteers, who all learnt English for the event. But I cannot wait for London for the simple reason that we will be swimming in cold water. I just cannot take the heat or hot water. On the day of our long swim in Beijing the outside temperature reached 51 degrees and the water over 40 degrees! It really was tough for a person like me who hates the heat. So bring on London and the cold water!

Do you get enough support from SSA?
One must remember that it was SASCOC who ran the Olympic and Paralympic teams, and not SSA, so people must not confuse the two. I know SSA have come in for some real heat from a few of the SA swimmers lately, but I have no beef with the SSA. In fact, Rushdee Warley and SSA have been fantastic to me, and helped whenever they have been able to help. I think they have taken a few swipes unfairly, and all that has done is left them terrified of making any decisions, so we seem to be in an even worse position than we were before hand! Perhaps things could have been handled better by a few of my team-mates?

Motivational talks – have you ever been caught telling same story?
I never ever write my talks down before hand, so I think I say things differently every time. I do start with the same joke as my ice breaker, though, and my message is from the heart and part of a set of principles I live by, so it is always going to be fairly similar.

What do you have to give up when training that you miss most?
Chocolate! In the Olympic Village you could get almost any junk food you wanted, but you could not get chocolate! But I am not really an extremist, but believe more in trying to maintain some sort of balance in my daily nutrition. So I would never cut out anything, but rather try for the moderation route. In fact I only started eating pasta recently when I moved in with my manager and friend, Anna Rita Strydom, who has some Italian blood in her.

Do you employ any special tactics to handle the fame and public intrusion?
That’s Anna Rita’s job … I just do not have the heart to turn anyone away. When I was younger, I approached someone for an autograph, and got given the brush off. So I vowed then, that if I ever became famous, that I would try very hard never to say no to an autograph hunter. I also truly love and appreciate the support I receive. I do sometimes just stay indoors at home instead of going out, though. It’s just sometimes easier to eat at home and watch a DVD rather than get amongst the crowds. Whenever it does get out of hand, though, like being asked for an autograph in a public loo (it really happened), then I hope Anna Rita is around …

So what is a typical day in the life of Natalie du Toit?
At the moment I am doing between 3 and 3½ hours training a day in the pool, so not too hectic. Closer to competition time, I will ramp that up to around 6 hours a day in the pool. I also try and get a few hours a week in the gym with my personal trainer. After training I will normally head out to lunch with Anna Rita, perhaps do a little shopping, and in the evenings when I do not have a speaking engagement, we will have a healthy pasta at home.

Drug testing in swimming – is there enough?
I am not sure there is ever enough. But what I will say is that it is getting much better. In the old days it might take the testers 4 or so years to be able to track a new drug, but now I reckon they have got it down to about a year. So that gives the users a year of “free” time on the drug. And of course the peddlers are in it for the money themselves … The sport is not nearly as clean as people might think it is, sadly.

What is it like to be tested?
Pretty damn grim actually. I was tested 4 or 5 times at the Paralympics, and basically it means you go home at around midnight after a race. And that is not great when it is the night before another race. You see, you have to produce a full bladder of urine, and that can take time after a race, sometimes up to 2 hours! And if you suffer from a little stage fright, it can take even longer! I am all for it, though, and proud to have just been made an ambassador for drug free sport. I will do anything to make sure I am drug free and am happy to prove to people that I am …

How do you feel about pipping the likes of JP Duminy, Trevor Immelman, Graeme Smith, Shaun Pollock and John Smit to the award?
Truly honoured, and I love the fact that it was decided by the Sport24 readers. That means a lot to me. In fact, the support I get all round the world is really motivational to me, so the fact that it was decided by online vote is really cool .

Ever wish you participated in a more mainstream sport?
There are a few things that irritate me about participating in a sport that is not flush with cash, but like losing my leg, I would not change it for the world. Things do not come easy in life and this is just another further proof of that. It keeps me humble and working hard.

Favourite tune on your iPod?
“I wish I was a Punk Rocker” is my favourite at the moment, but I love most music. Especially the old stuff, actually. I have all the different iPods and a cool set of speakers that I can take around with me. Music plays a big part in my life as it can swing my mood, but I do not have a specific song that I listen to when preparing for a race. I am hoping to try one of those under water music players that Speedo make some day, though!

Most irritating thing about losing your leg?
Being a slow walker, and not being able to run when I want to. But I have come to terms with losing my leg and that now forms part of who I am …

Are you on Facebook?
No. I love my gadgets like mobile phones and ipods, but I am not into e-mail or Facebook

So how do you stay in touch with family and friends?
I am pretty bad with that, it has to be said …

GALLERY: Natalie accepts her Sport24 Star of the Year award

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