(Recent interview with one of SA’s greatest sporting ambassadors on SportsFire)
GRAEME JOFFE: I have often said it – one of my favourite sporting stars, one the most unbelievable sporting ambassadors for South Africa and now it’s Natalie du Toit (MBE).
It’s got a nice ring to it Nats, congratulations.
NATALIE DU TOIT: Thanks very much Graeme. It caught me completely off guard. Because of the British honour you would never think something like that could be bestowed upon a South African. So, completely humbled. I think if I can put it in words, I would never ever have expected it and sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s real.
GJ: Just looking at the press release and it says Her Majesty the Queen has announced that South African Olympic and Para-Olympic medal winning swimmer Natalie Du Toit has been awarded an honorary MBE for her services to Para-Olympic sport.
NDT: It is quite a strange thing because I’ve been fortunate to meet the Queen once or twice before and it is very humbling. I would put it on par with former President Nelson Mandela, that humbling experience that you get when you hear his name or you’re in his presence. Throughout my career, it’s been all about doing what you feel is right and it is about the team going out there and believing in a dream and believing in a goal and believing you can do it. And if you go out and you do extra work, you know, you don’t expect that award at the end of the day. That work is done because you want to make a difference, and we’ve always given the advice that go out there and give as much of the knowledge that you know and pass it on to others.
GJ: So many challenges from day one of your career but all worth it in the end?
NDT: I think when we go out there it is about achieving our dreams, so you know my team always said … whatever it takes for us to be able to achieve that dream we’re going to do and it. Swimming was my dream and so we gave back and we basically did the whole package of giving back, swimming, training and working. And it is I guess worth it in the way that swimming was worth it and for 22 years I gave everything up. But when you walk away I don’t really see that you have anything much in life other than a name or an award. There is nothing else and you still have to go out there and make a success of something else or something in life. So it is quite an interesting thing to try and explain but for me it is an end to a chapter.
GJ: But not many athletes get a chapter to end with a MBE?
NDT: I have got to really just say thank you to the British High Commission for nominating me, Gary Benham, Isabel Potgieter and company … to them it is doing it without me knowing and phoning me up and saying … look you have been awarded this MBE so could we please have a paragraph about how you feel. It takes you off guard because it is not South Africans, it is British people out there that have gone out of their way and been part of that journey in the last 2 or 3 years. So, I have got to say thank you to everybody who has been working with me and believe that we could achieve what we have.
GJ: It’s world recognition as well for a remarkable athlete Nats but I won’t embarrass you any further. Life after swimming – has it been tough?
NDT: It has been very tough. As I said you walk away with I guess a name and an association with swimming, and although you understand that you’ve been built through a sport and the sport has built who you are, you know, to walk away with basically … you don’t really have that much money, you don’t have many friends, you don’t even know what your interests are at the end of the day. I trained 8 hours a day, I ran 3 programmes and you never really in South Africa. When you’re here you are trying to earn a bit of money and after all of that nothing ever would … what would you call it … prepare you for knowing that you actually have nothing. You’ve ended everything so you have to start something completely different and something completely new, and even though you think you’re prepared, you will never ever be truly prepared.
GJ: Looking back at that incredible career – so many great highlights that I can remember.
NDT: You know we always made memories wherever we went, no matter how bad or how good or what was happening. We always have a good memory of a tour. From year to year you have competition and you’re always trying to aim for it and you try and train harder and harder. The people that you meet, you know everything stands out. At the end of the day, it moulds you into who you are and to be able to walk away and to say thank you for all of that, and appreciate it and try and use it further on, because there are lots of lessons that you can learn in this sport. I guess qualifying for the Olympics in 2008 would be the highest achievement for me in that I trained so hard and it took me so long. Missing the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 by less than half a second, then having a motorbike accident and changing strokes and basically starting from scratch. Then eventually achieving it. You know that all sort of culminates and at the end of the day when the team has achieved it, I guess the proudest moment that you can ever go through. We’ve done it. With everybody saying … you’ll never achieve it, and the handful that believed that you would … you’ve done it and that would be everything.
GJ: Who will ever forget Natalie fu Toit, the first amputee ever to qualify for the Olympic Games. Just amazing. Nats I am probably fishing here and you can say pass if you don’t want to answer the question but are the Paralympians well looked after in South Africa?
NDT: I guess ….
GJ: You can say pass.
NDT: You know at the end of the day if I look in general at my sport, I didn’t do it for the money, I did it because I enjoyed it and it is sad and it is hurtful that there are sports out there that do get the money and you don’t. I always believe that there is always potential to grow and it is not to look at what is bad in the sport or how little they’re getting but to keep it growing and to have people in the sport that, you know, who are willing to go out there and work hard for that, and believe in the athletes. If I didn’t have my team that believed in me and no matter if it was my leg that needed to go from the start to the finish and it was taken by the wrong person, you know, that is just not how it works. So everyone had their role and everyone had their competency, and everyone worked together and joined hands … and if you don’t have that and if you don’t have the interest of the athlete, how would the athlete do better, what would make them tick? I always saw that with my team and if we had people like that in the sport, I definitely think that not just the athletes but everything else would grow immensely.
GJ: Well said Nats. I’ve just heard so many horror stories about how many different Paralympic swimmers for instance, their coaches can’t get funding to go to competitions and the extra assistance is just not there for the athletes. What has been your motto throughout life?
NDT: If I can say how tough life actually can be and it is just to try and get through it and those patches in which you are completely down, it is to live them and somehow to try and come through it at the end of the day. I am proof that it is possible, no matter if it takes you 22 years or if it takes you one year or one month, it is possible to get through that dip. And right now I have no idea what I want to do, it is extremely difficult and I always feel like a failure where I feel like, you know, everyone thinks you’re this big success but I don’t know what I want to do. So, you put a lot of pressure on yourself and at the end of the day to believe that it will all work out and not just to believe it but to go out and actually work to try and find it or to try and achieve whatever you want to. Life doesn’t come easy and all of us go through bad patches and good patches and it is to embrace it. That was the advise that was given to me, but also … the advise came after I had learned a lot of lessons and it just put it all into perspective. It is to set goals, dreams, live by values and you know that is basically the brand that was created, was values and to never ever let those values fall at any point in time.
Natalie du Toit being awarded an MBE in October by the Earl of Essex