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Associated Press
U.S. swimmer Erin Popovich

Popovich and Du Toit Star in Paralympics Pool

September 17, 2008 12:01 PM
by Denis Cummings
American Erin Popovich and South African Natalie Du Toit dominated their swimming divisions at the 2008 Paralympic Games, combining for nine golds and two silvers.

Popovich and Du Toit Shine at Paralympics

Popovich won four golds and two silvers in her six events and earned the title, “Michael Phelps of the Paralympics.” She and Phelps were born a day apart and both have 14 career gold medals, though Popovich has more total medals.

“We have a lot of drive and determination. We're extremely competitive both in swimming and just in life,” she said. “To even be mentioned in the same sentence ... is a tremendous honor for me, to be seen in the same light as that is huge.”

The two met over the summer and Phelps, who stands almost two feet taller than Popovich, expressed his respect for her. "I think we have a lot in common," he said. 
She's a very, very talented swimmer.”

Popovich suffers from a form of dwarfism and competes in the S7 division against swimmers with a similar severe disability. In the S9 division, reserved for swimmers with a less severe disability, South Africa’s Natalie du Toit won gold in all five of her races.

Du Toit, who lost her left leg in a 2001 accident, is one of just two athletes competing in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. She became the first amputee swimmer to ever race in the Olympics this year, finishing 16th in the 10-kilometer swim.

She is often overshadowed by countryman Oscar Pistorius, an amputee sprinter who won a court case that gave him a chance to qualify for this year’s Olympics. However, it was du Toit who qualified for Beijing, while Pistorius must wait until 2012 in London.

She said that there are too many differences between her and Pistorius to compare their achievements, but she showed support for her countryman. “If he works hard and trains hard, then he should be allowed to follow his dream,” she said. “I believe everyone should be allowed to follow their dreams.”

Key Players: Popovich and du Toit

Erin Popovich

Erin Popovich was born with achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that causes dwarfism. As a child, she was forced to wear braces and have about a dozen surgeries. She was still able to play soccer and basketball as a child, but gave them up in middle school when the other children grew too large.

In January 1998, she began swimming. Two and a half years later, she was in Sydney, winning three golds and three silvers in the Paralympics. She returned four years later at the Athens Paralympics and won seven gold medals, matching Mark Spitz’s feat at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

She attended Colorado State University, where she worked out with the swim team. “I don't feel any different from them,” said Popovich. “They offer support, they offer encouragement, they're hard-working people and it really rubs off on me because I want to work hard for them. I want to represent them the best I can.”

She graduated in 2007 and hopes to attend medical school, but the 23-year-old has “no thoughts of retiring” from swimming.
Natalie du Toit

Natalie Du Toit was a talented swimmer who nearly qualified for the 2000 Olympics as a 16-year-old. In 2001, however, she was struck by a car and had her left leg amputated. She returned to the pool just six months after her amputation and began competing in both Paralympic and able-bodied events.

She swam in the 2002 Commonwealth Games, winning two disabled events and qualifying for the able-bodied 800-meter freestyle final. She then attempted to qualify for the 2004 Olympics, but fell short and could only compete in that year’s Paralympics, where she won five golds and a silver.

When the International Olympic Committee decided to include outdoor swimming in the 2008 Olympics, du Toit began competing in the 10-kilometers against able-bodied competitors. In May 2008, she finished fourth in the 10-kilometer swim at the 2008 World Open Water Championships, becoming the first amputee swimmer to qualify for the Olympic Games.

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