Kindred spirits

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! SportsAugust 14, 2008

BEIJING – Natalia Partyka doesn't know what Natalie du Toit looks like and had never heard of her until a few days ago.

Some time over the next week, though, Partyka, a Polish table tennis player, will try to seek out South African swimmer du Toit at the athletes' village.

She doesn't know what the pair will talk about, but she's determined to arrange the meeting and senses she may find a kindred spirit.

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Table tennis: A passion since the age of 7.

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The two young women come from different continents and compete in different sports. Yet as the only athletes competing in both the Olympic Games and the Paralympics in Beijing, they share a unique bond.

"I don't know her, but I am going to try to meet her here," Partyka told Yahoo! Sports in the interview zone at Peking University Gymnasium. "I think it would be a nice thing."

Partyka was born 19 years ago with her right forearm missing. Yet her disability did not prevent her from chasing table tennis success after falling in love with the sport as a 7-year-old.

To serve, she uses the stump of her right arm to toss the ball in the air before spinning it across the net with a ferocious flick of her left wrist.

After games, she high-fives opponents with her left hand instead of the customary hand shake.

In the Paralympic world, she is a superstar. She competed at the Sydney Paralympics as an 11-year-old in 2000, won gold in Athens four years later and is virtually guaranteed another triumph in Beijing.

The Gdansk native shot to prominence in January when she defeated world No. 8 Li Jia Wei of Singapore at the World Championships in China.

The attention at the Olympics is even more intense. By the time Partyka finished with the countless press, radio and television interviews Thursday, her teammates had already showered, changed and were yelling at her to run for the team bus.

However, Partyka throws herself into life with a philosophical approach and takes the limelight in stride.

"I know that people are interested in me because it is not a normal thing," she said. "But no one ever told me I couldn't be a good table tennis player and achieve something – and I never believed that.

"This sport is my passion, and I always believed that nothing was impossible.

"For me, I get to go to two Olympics, one after the other. I am very lucky because not many people can do this."

Once these games finish, Partyka will practice with a Chinese training squad for a week before the rest of the Polish Paralympic team arrives. The Paralympics begin Sept. 6.

After that, it will be back to Poland to play for her team in a domestic table tennis league.

Partyka will attempt to mix her sporting endeavors with studying physical education at the university level but admits her dedication to table tennis will always come first.

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The Paralympics begin Sept. 6.

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Representing Poland in the women's team competition, she helped the side to a 3-1 victory against Germany and also gave world No. 10 Tie Yana a fright in a defeat against Hong Kong .

Poland was eliminated after the group stage following a 3-2 defeat to Romania, but Partyka, ranked No. 147 in the world, again performed well, combining with Xu Jie for a point in the doubles.

While the Chinese men's team competed on a nearby table and garnered most of the attention, Partyka's play was also closely followed.

"It is nice that people support me and take an interest in what I am doing," she said. "Maybe it is because of my situation, but I hope it is because I can play well and I fight hard.

"I like to think about my strengths. My mind is strong and I am in good condition."

Partyka's smile and bubbly nature have endeared her to fellow athletes, and her tale is an uplifting and inspirational one.

"If I motivate other people, that is good," she said. "But I don't feel like I did anything so special yet.

"I found a sport that I like and I worked very hard. That is all."