ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick. At the Olympics, it's called the Swimmers Marathon, more than six miles in open water. And today, all the reporters wanted to talk to the woman who finished in 16th place. She's a South African, Natalie du Toit. As NPR's Howard Berkes reports, Natalie is an athlete and an amputee.

HOWARD BERKES: Some Olympians get enormous attention simply because they're here.

(Soundbite of competition)

BERKES: 25 women splashed at the start of the first ever women's Olympic swimming marathon, jockeying for position in a massive man-made lake outside Beijing. They swam six miles in around two hours. Russian Larisa Ilchenko won, but a lot of attention during and after the race focused on a swimmer with one leg, a para-Olympian making a rare appearance in the able-bodied Olympics.

(Soundbite of press conference)

BERKES: Still wet from her swim and wearing a prosthetic leg now, Natalie du Toit struggled against the tide of cameras and microphones and reporters. It's a swarm O.J. thick, and at one point, du Toit disappears in the news knot. But her handlers manage to pull her free. This is rock star treatment even gold medalist Ilchenko didn't get. In fact, the news conference with the medal winners included questions about du Toit. Ilchenko responded through an interpreter.

Ms. LARISA ILCHENKO (Olympic Gold Medalist, Women Swimming Marathon): (Through translator) What are you going to do as far as awarding her a separate medal? Looking at these people, just really looking at them inspires you, and once again, I have the utmost respect to her.

BERKES: Du Toit lost her lower left leg at a motorcycle accident seven years ago. She was 17 then and barely missed qualifying for the Sydney Olympics the year before. Just three months after the amputation, she was back in the pool learning how to swim with one leg. She tried again for the Athens Games and failed, but won five gold medals in the Paralympics, the games for disabled athletes. At her own news conference today, she said the new swimming marathon gave her another chance.

Ms. NATALIE DU TOIT (Olympic Marathon Swimmer, South Africa): For me, it's not about being disabled or about being able bodied. It's all the same to me. I get up, and I race. You know, I'm not in a campaign or anything like that, and it's just my personal dream and my personal goal, and to me, it's a dream come true.

BERKES: Du Toit isn't the first amputee or disabled athlete to compete with the able bodied in the Olympics. But it's rare. So mixing disability with ability in the games attracts attention and analysis. Chris Waddell has 13 Paralympic medals for wheel chair and track competitions.

Mr. CHRIS WADDELL (Paralympic Athlete): She is a lot of - why we watch the Olympics. We are watching to see somebody do something that we never thought was possible, and she completely embodies that. The sense of, how can somebody with such a perceived disadvantage be competitive or potentially beat other competitors or be the best in the world in what she's doing. It's a human victory.

BERKES: And a challenge is the distinctions often made between abled and disabled argues Marge Snyder, an executive at the Women Sports Foundation in New York.

Ms. MARJORIE SNYDER (Executive, Women Sports Foundation): You know, whether or not you have one leg or two legs, one arm or two arms, asthma or no asthma, you can compete on the same level.

BERKES: Du Toit continues to challenge the distinctions. She competes in the Paralympics in two weeks, and she'll keep on swimming at the Olympic level. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beijing.

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