The stories of two young female Olympic athletes, with very different backgrounds, can serve as role models for all of us women pursuing dreams of our own.

Natalie du Toit, a 24-year-old South African swimmer, is in China to participate in the marathon open swim race – the first time that event is a part of the Olympics. What is unusual about her? Seven years ago she had a terrible motorcycle accident and lost one leg. She had been a competitive swimmer before the accident, so returning to the water after the loss of her leg was freeing for her. Learning of the new Olympic sport, she was determined to vie for a place on the team and qualified this year. Because the event is held in open water, it does not require flip turns at the ends of a pool and upper body strength is more important. Although Natalie didn’t win any medals in China, she epitomizes the Olympic ideals through her efforts and determination. As she herself said, “My message isn’t just to disabled people. It’s to everyone out there that you have to work hard. I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs…but I’ve seen a lot of good things along the way. I was able to use the negativism in a good light and say after my accident, ‘I can still do it if I work hard.’ You have to set dreams, set goals and never give up.”

Shawn Johnson faced a different kind of challenge coming into the Beijing Olympics – high expectations. A world champion in gymnastics, she had been favored to take the gold in several events but had to “settle” for the silver medal in team, individual all-around, and floor exercise events. She handled those losses with dignity and grace well beyond her 16 years. In her final event, individual balance beam, she finally won her gold medal and celebrated her success, again with poise and elegance. “This gold means more than anything to me. Beam is my favorite event, and I’ve worked hardest on this for a long time. It’s the perfect ending to my Olympic experience.” Still, Shawn explained her reactions to coming in second, “I wouldn’t turn in one of my silver medals for a gold. They all mean something special. I learned from them all.” Personifying the best Olympic principles, Shawn has been gracious in victory and defeat.

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