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Monday, November 29, 2021

Sports: How SA flag bearer embraced Covid, and changed

CHARL DU TOIT had been training like a machine, until June. That’s when Covid hit him. It knocked his Paralympic Games preparation sideways, but it also shifted his ambition in a way he would never have imagined.

The double Paralympic gold medalist from Cape Town had always focused on winning, but a bout of Covid forced a re-set. “I was always so outcomes-based, but I’ve come to realise the journey is important too.

No matter what happens in Tokyo, I’ve had the privilege of training with special people for five years, I’ve gained awesome memories and had personal growth. None of this can be compared to medals.”

On Tuesday, another milestone looms: he and tennis player Kgothatso Montjane will be flagbearers for Team SA at the official opening ceremony.

Du Toit sprints in the T37 class, which incorporates his cerebral palsy, and which is fiercely competitive. He won Paralympic 100m gold in Rio in world record time, but it’s since been eclipsed several times over. He also competes in the 200m and 400m, the event he is especially focusing on at the Paralympic Games.

Just before Covid hit him, Du Toit ran a personal best (50.56 sec), not a long way off the 50.45 sec world record.

Success five years ago came as a big surprise. He wasn’t in great shape mentally, not least because his uncle, who had been one of his biggest supporters, was murdered in a house robbery on the eve of the Games.

He wasn’t supposed to be in his best shape, but his religious conviction helped pull him through and he returned a hero.

Notwithstanding his recent duel with his health, he enjoyed a successful training camp in Pretoria before the team departure earlier this month.

Aged 28, he came to athletics late after a schoolboy career in which he adored cricket and also played tennis and hockey. Having also suffered epilepsy until the age of 13, he was often a victim of teasing and bullies at junior school in Pretoria. His confidence took a knock, but with sport he found a way of fitting in. He took to it easily, probably because his parents had been top-class athletes.

Competing in para athletics since 2011, success came quickly and in 2013 he won his first medal at the world championship. He’s since won six more, two of them gold, plus Olympic success, making him one of the most consistent athletes in South Africa.

His energy is off the charts, which is just as well. Off the track, Du Toit is just as busy. He trains in Stellenbosch where he’s studying for a Master’s degree in health and sports science, specifically the impact of physical education on the attitudes and motivational changes of learners with a physical impairment.

Having fed off the energy of the crowds in Rio in 2016, he won’t have the same experience in Tokyo. Not that it troubles him.

“No crowds, no problem,” he says. “Growing up with a disability, you learn to adapt.”

Du Toit’s medal quest begins on August 27 (100m semifinals and final), followed by the 400m heats on August 31 (his mum’s birthday), the 400m final on September 1 and the 200m races on September 3 and 4 – all live on SuperSport.

SuperSport’s broadcasts of the Paralympics continue through to September 5 with extended daily coverage on SS Variety 2 and 3 and the SS Grandstand channels.

  • * SuperSport
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