2018 gsport Albertina Sisulu Special Recognition Award winner, Natalie du Toit, is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the sporting world. Arguably, South Africa’s most celebrated female athlete, she is rising in business and is growing in her role as a global sports leader.
The evolution of this proud sporting ambassador has been interesting to watch. It is not easy for athletes to move on after competing, and Natalie herself speaks about those challenges. Yet, she continues to reinvent herself by remaining true to her core values, while contributing positively to the growth of sport globally.
So, how did it all begin?
Born in Cape Town on 29 January 1984 to a working class family, Natalie’s formidable demeanour as a fiercely determined able-bodied athlete was soon apparent.
It came as no surprise that, at six, Natalie du Toit dreamt of becoming a South African Olympic champion.
When she was fourteen years old and competing at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Games, Natalie very nearly qualified for three events at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, participating as an able-bodied athlete.
It was evident that she would go on to bring glory to her country in years to come.
But her life changed track dramatically in February 2001, when she lost her leg in a motorcycle accident.
She was riding her scooter back to school after swimming practice when a reckless driver driving out of a parking place crashed right into her left leg.
Knowing the implications on her future career, doctors tried to save her legs, but it was not to be, and her left leg was amputated through the knee.
She Rises Once Again
After spending two weeks in hospital, the strong-minded Natalie climbed back into the pool, determined to inspire others with her fortitude and winning approach.
Despite the enormity of her setback, she was resolute in her decision to participate at the Manchester Games – both as an able-bodied and disabled competitor, just to prove it could be done.
And one year after the accident – aged 18 – Natalie became the first athlete with a disability to qualify for a final in an able-bodied event, going on to win both the multi-disability 50m freestyle and the multi-disability 100m freestyle in world record time, at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, winning the first prestigious David Dixon Award for Outstanding Athlete.
In August 2002 Natalie was awarded the Western Cape Golden Cross. During the award ceremony Western Cape Premier Marthinus van Schalkwyk said she had gone “beyond gold, and swam her way into the hearts of not only South Africans, but the whole world.”
International Acclaim for Humble Champion
In 2003, she competed against able-bodied swimmers, and won gold in the 800m freestyle at the All-Africa Games as well as a silver medal in the 800m freestyle and bronze in the 400 metres freestyle at the Afro-Asian Games. In 2004 she was voted 48th in the Top 100 Great South Africans by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).
Today she is internationally acclaimed for the five gold medals each she won at the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Games respectively, including two gold medals at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and six gold medals won at the 2006 IPC World Swimming Championships, swimming without the aid of a prosthetic limb.
She is one of only two Paralympians to compete at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In May 2008, Natalie became the first athlete in history to qualify for both the Olympic and the Paralympic Games in the same year, when qualifying for the 10km open water race at the Open Water World Championships, in Seville.
South Africa chose her to carry their flag at the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, an honour bestowed on her once more at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing.
National and International Honours Mark a Distinguished Career
In 2008, she won the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award and received the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold in 2009 “for her exceptional achievements in swimming.”
On 10 March 2010, Natalie du Toit was awarded the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability for “breaking down the barriers between disabled and able-bodied sport”
At the 2010 Commonwealth Games she won three gold medals. On 27 August 2012, just three days before the start of the 2012 Summer Paralympics, she announced her intention to retire at the end of the event. The 2012 London Paralympics was not her best, but she remained focused despite taking on a programme of seven events.
She emerged as the most successful South African athlete of the Games, winning three gold medals – 400m freestyle, 100m butterfly and 200m individual medley. She also added a silver medal in her last race, the 100m freestyle.
On retirement she said, “I look back and realise I gave everything in the pool, and gave everything as a person.
“It’s time to move on.” – Natalie du Toit
Natalie, easily one of South Africa’s most recognisable champions, won the inaugural gsport Athlete with Disability Award for exceptional swimming achievements in South African sport. Three years later, she was inducted into the gsport Hall of Fame in 2015 for being one of the most prosperous disabled athletes of all time.
Natalie spoke to gsport about her swimming career, life after competing and her growing role as a global sports leader …
Natalie, where are you now?
My warm and fuzzy place at the moment is working on growing and learning for myself and building something in business that becomes as equally successful as to that of my prior sporting career.
Within this, it is to support sports in a holistic approach, making sure that mistakes are not revisited and at the same time using the communications space and platform to inform and educate.
Tell us about SportPodium …
SportsPodium is a transparent sports community. We level the playing field by taking ethics, real value, sustainability and passion in sports to full throttle by rewarding aspiring athletes for the most important element of training which is diligence.
At our very core, we embody tenacity with strong brand pillars of Transparency and ethics. Real value. Real rewards. Sustainability and Excitement.
As a former athlete, this is truly exciting for me to witness as it allows the merging of sport and business in unchartered waters – excuse the pun.
This project will shift the development scope within sport and allow opportunities and growth opportunities that have never been witnessed before.
What are your other business interests?
Through my swimming career, I was created as a brand and was therefore able to earn money to travel and gain experience and be successful. It is through this that I learned of the power of knowledge and experience.
My business interest and my particular role is to communicate on the digital and social side. Social Media has become a communications tool that we all need to be on and a two-way style of communications will always be a challenge.
I am focused on the well-being and strategic side of social media, training and growing businesses and sports organisations, teams as well as businesses.
Importantly, it has become my new passion and affords me the same goal-driven lifestyle as my swimming career. Communicating with a purpose on platforms that are ‘always on’ to a network of minds of that are switched on, ultimately building a brand and using the power of communication is how we see ourselves making that difference.
You sit on the SASCOC Athletes’ Commission. What has your experience been so far?
Serving on the athletes commission is really an experience for growth with an opportunity to grow my fellow athlete commission members, and be the voice that has been lacking till now.
Change is on the horizon and being called for from an International Olympic Committee standpoint. We have the ability to be so much and more and are taking active steps in achieving goals set.
What comes to mind when you reflect on your career and what you achieved?
I remember the path of my swimming career and what has come from it. Through the ups and through the downs, the challenges, the good times, every moment in time freezes and has made me who I am today.
I am grateful for opportunities afforded to myself and my team as I would not have been successful without that team or as it is known in this day and age – an entourage. Awards have motivated me, my followers and supporters have motivated me, but most importantly, I know that I could not train harder than I did, I could not have given more of myself or asked more of my team, and we gave as much back to the sport as we could whilst we were still in the sport.
Our experiences shape us and although I would have liked to have been further along in my business career, my studies and my knowledge gained, I am grateful for my experience as a sports person.
What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you started your career?
I wish I knew and understood the magnitude and the patience that I needed to move on after sport. Coming from an environment which could be controlled in terms of training or racing times etc., moving into life where you rely on others, and where the general public is not as easy to move on, and often cannot see anything beyond the realm of sport when my name is mentioned, is tough, especially as I was ready to move on.
What is your advice to athletes about life after competing?
Find that one thing that makes you you. It could be a hard working person, a helping and giving person, but find that one thing that makes you successful you that makes you, you.
What is your message to women?
Let us fight towards the same goals and collaborate to achieve these goals. Let us not break each other done at every opportunity. Let’s rather build each other up, and let us support and build to empower women.
What do you still want to achieve?
I want to be successful again in business. Success for me is defined by achieving all my goals set which include finances, friendships, business opportunities, staying a leader, growing expertise and being the best that I can be.
Photo 1 caption: An athlete of such acclaim that one cannot imagine a successor in title, SA sporting heroine Natalie du Toit says she wants to be a champion once more – this time in business. Photo: Supplied
Photo 2 caption: Natalie du Toit shares a happy moment on being awarded an honorary MBE with His Royal Highness, Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, with his wife Countess Sophie (cropped left) and Isabelle Potgieter (cropped right, Head of Communications and Spokesperson at the British High Commission in Pretoria. Photo: Supplied
Photo 3 caption: Natalie du Toit says a few words to acknowledge her winning the 2012 gsport Athlete of the Year with Disability Award, at the Wanderers Club on 20 November, 2018. Photo: gsport
Photo 4 caption: Standing next to the icon’s granddaughter Zoya (third from left), Natalie du Toit is recognised as one of five Albertina Sisulu Centenary Special Recognition Awards, at the Wanderers Club on 31 August, 2018. Photo: gsport