Against All Odds, You 'Swim Your Own Race'

Aug 2, 2012
Originally published on August 13, 2012 10:19 am

South African poet Mbali Vilakazi is also a performer and radio producer based in Cape Town. Vilakazi's poem pays tribute to South African swimmer Natalie du Toit, the first female amputee ever to qualify for the Olympic Games.

Du Toit lost her leg after a scooter accident at age 17. During the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, she carried the torch for South Africa and competed in the women's 10 km open-water race. The Order of Ikhamanga mentioned in the poem is awarded by the president of South Africa for achievement in culture and sports. Of du Toit's accomplishments Vilakazi says, "I want to be able to celebrate her and the inspiration she is. ... She is everything the Olympics represent to me — the triumph of the human spirit."

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It's been a week of Olympic poetry here on MORNING EDITION. We invited poets from the far reaches of the globe to compose poems about Olympians and the Olympics.


MONTAGNE: And the final entry in our own Poetry Games comes from South Africa. Poet Mbali Vilakazi was moved to write about an Olympian who overcame a grave injury to compete in the 2008 games in Beijing. Swimmer Natalie du Toit was already competing internationally when, at the age of 17, she lost her leg in a scooter accident. She went on to become the first female amputee to qualify for the Olympic Games. Here, she's honored by her fellow South African.

MBALI VILAKAZI: My name is Mbali Vilakazi. And the title of my poem is "Swim Your Own Race," for Natalie du Toit.

(Reading) There is life here. Beneath the surface tension of shattered bones, dreams and splintered muscles, things broken and those that may never be replaced. Pulling the weight of it, you do not tread the water wounded and in retreat. By the determined strokes of fate, you swim your own race: The shoulder of your strength leaning against the turn, the eye that didn't see that day, stopping the clock on the vision of your time.

You continue to beat into the heart of the spectacle - Manchester City, Beijing, Athens and London. In no ordinary silence do we watch, our own feared hopes waking, enthralled and now breathless, in awe. You are unforgettable.

Woman of scars, and triumph, the dance is fluid, unexpected, tears of loss flowing towards your many firsts. You are the Order of Ikhamanga in gold, a flower, beautiful and unique among the baobabs of the land, your shape shifting, the disabled-abled body, a quest untempered by its tests. If you want to get there, you go on. You have already won. You always do. And we do, too. We are the believers. The message in its possibility: A new freestyle, long distance, and in your own lane.


MONTAGNE: South African poet Mbali Vilakazi. Her poem, "Swim Your Own Race," for amputee swimmer Natalie du Toit, is the final in our Poetry Games. Now, let the voting begin. Go to to hear and read. We'll count the votes and next week announce the poet who will wear the wreath of victory. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.