Spirit of a champ

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am

Sang Lan, who was paralysed from the waist down in a horrific fall at the Goodwill Games in New York eight years ago that left her with a broken neck, still dreams of the Olympics.

However, the 25-year-old former Chinese gymnast has targeted a career in broadcasting - rather than chasing gold in Beijing.

'I would like to start my career in the broadcasting business and one of my targets is to work for the 2008 Olympic Games,' Sang told Manulife clients during a motivational talk in Hong Kong.

It's no pipedream, wheelchair-bound Sang is poised to complete her studies at the Journalism and Communication Department of the country-leading Beijing University next year.

'It will be a great challenge if I can have the opportunity to run through different venues and get live reports right after an athlete finishes his event,' she said.

The broadcasting job is unlikely to pose any difficulty to Sang as she has hosted a Star Sports programme named Sang Lan 2008 for the past two years.

Sang appears much stronger and healthier today than when she was discharged from hospital, but she has still endured a more painful life than many people can imagine.

Sang remains philosophical about what happened to her. 'I just take it as one of the challenges in life,' she said, 'though my challenge comes in a tougher way than for most other people of the world. I just face up to it.'

'Although I am still in a wheelchair, my upper body co-ordination has improved. I can send out mobile phone SMS through my little fingers, do 15 sit-ups and another five after a short break. Most of all, I am a stronger person mentally.

'But there are a lot of things I cannot do on my own. I find it difficult to keep up with my classmates as they can finish their work in a blink while I have to toil for hours. I still need my mother to take care of my daily life, including minor things such as putting on a shirt.

'My fingers cannot hold heavy objects and I have to attend the rehabilitation centre in Beijing on a regular basis. I have to go through an hour massage on my leg muscles every morning and 30 minutes in the evening to stop them from shrinking. After all, I am still a disabled person.'

Like many young women in their mid-20s, Sang is charming, talkative and cheerful and emits a carefree attitude while outlining her future plans.

But she revealed how a horrific fall during a warm-up session for the women's vault at the Goodwill Games in New York in 1998 changed her life - and left her with a spate of harrowing memories.

'I was trained to become an athlete from the age of five and for 12 years I had been working hard to realise my dream, get into the national squad, represent China at international events and, most of all, win medals for my country,' she said.

'After retiring from competitive gymnastics, I had hoped to become a good coach and to pass my experience on to the next generation. But all of a sudden [after the accident], I woke up in hospital and I knew clearly [that] my childhood dream had gone. There was no way I could make it [as a gymnast] anymore.'

Sang was nearing her peak when she represented China at the 1998 Goodwill Games. A year earlier, she had won the same event at the National Games in Shanghai and the National Championships in Changsha, Hunan.

In 1995, Sang, at 15, was crowned all-round champion at the City Games in Nanjing, two years after first being called up by one of the best women's gymnastics teams in the world.

But on July 21, 1998, Sang inexplicably slipped and landed on her head, severing her spinal cord between the fifth and the sixth vertebrae.

Sang recovered consciousness after a seven-hour operation, but she could not move her legs, had minimal movement of her arms and was paralysed from her waist down.

Sang was determined from the outset not to give in to feelings of despair.

'My years' training as a gymnast had taught me how to stand up against adversity. Indeed, get up from where you fall is the most ordinary thing for a gymnast and it is also my motto,' she said. 'I just told myself, 'Do not give up'.'

Amazingly, a year later although she was still paralysed, she was on her way back to China after undergoing rehabilitation in New York during which she enjoyed visits and attention from world famous celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio and singer Celine Dion.

The American media were besotted by her progress. Christopher Reeve, the paralysed actor, sent her an encouraging letter praising her courage and heroism in facing up to a traumatic injury.

Two former American presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, each gave her a cuddly toy to cheer her up. She also received the 'Brave Athlete Award' from the Long Island Sports Committee during her rehabilitation.

The contrasts when she finally went back home were staggering.

'After returning to China, I was like falling down from the mountain top again,' she said.

'When I was in the United States, though I suffered from the devastating injury, I had got all the attention, but I was on my own after I returned to China and started worrying about my future.'

'I hardly did anything during the first few months after I returned to China. Fortunately I kept telling myself that I had already overcome the most difficult part of my life and why should I give up at this stage.

'As there was no way I could change the fact that I had been paralysed, my life still had to go on and I still have a long way to go in the many years to come.'

Sang said it was at that time that she had started thinking about going back to school in order to equip herself for the future.

'Studying at university was also my dream when I was an athlete, because my target was to become a coach after retiring from my competitive career. But I realised that I also needed certain qualifications that you could only get at school, or possibly at university level,' she said.