Sichuan quake amputee dives back into life

Teen who lost both her legs in quake puts all her energy into her dream to be queen of the pool

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 6:28am

Zhang Chunmei sat on the edge of her dormitory bed at a swimming school in Chengdu, sending text messages to a friend on her smartphone.

The 16-year-old lost both her legs, amputated above the knee, after she was trapped for almost three days when her school collapsed in the massive earthquake that struck Sichuan five years ago.

She now wants to be an "outstanding athlete".

I saw her pulled from the rubble of the four-storey Yingxiu Primary School building, which was levelled by the magnitude-8 quake on May 12, 2008, taking the lives of more than 200 children.

Chunmei was pulled out alive late on the morning of May 15 but her legs were so badly damaged that doctors amputated them a couple of days after she was taken to a Chengdu hospital by military helicopter.

Putting down her smartphone, Chunmei said she had been trading text messages with Yuan Xiaowei, a former Beichuan Middle School pupil who lost one of his arms when his school was toppled by the quake.

She said she had befriended Xiaowei, now 22, while being treated in a Chongqing hospital. He's now studying at a sports school in Tianjin .

Thanks to Hong Kong-based orthopaedic surgeons with the project Stand TALL who gave her tailor-made prosthetic limbs, Chunmei says she can now travel 50 kilometres on her own with the aid of crutches to see her parents on weekends.

Stand TALL is a programme set up by the Chinese Speaking Orthopaedic Society to help the tens of thousands of people who lost limbs.

Chunmei said it still hurt when she tried to walk on her own, but she is now far more self-confident, no longer avoiding eye contact when chatting .

Last month she started 50 days of training in Chengdu, swimming more than 1,000 metres a day.

Chunmei said she had won several medals, including a gold in the 100-metre breaststroke at the Chengdu swimming gala and a bronze in the 100-metre breaststroke at the provincial gala.

Teenager Huang Wenpan, who had infantile paralysis and is one of her training partners, said Chunmei was a "very tough girl who always wears a smile and is nice to everybody".

Luo Ying, Chunmei's roommate, said she was persistent in the face of hardship during training sessions.

Swimming coach Liu Chunyi said because Chunmei was a latecomer to swimming her body was not so strong.

"But her mind is very strong," he said, adding that perhaps it had been made tougher because she used to help her parents with strenuous domestic chores before the quake.

"When Chunmei has reached a certain standard, we will pick her as a member of the Sichuan swimming team," Liu said.

He said the coaches tried to rebuild quake victims' self-confidence by helping them get tougher both physically and psychologically and they planned to send Chunmei to the All-China swimming competition this autumn.