THE story of mainland gymnast Sang Lan who remains strong and upbeat after last year's accident that left her paralysed has touched the hearts of many. Yet it probably means more to one who shares her feelings. Like Sang, 16-year-old Liu Meifong has always been a driven, promising athlete. And like Sang, Liu's athletic career has been cut short in her prime years. But while Sang is paralysed, Liu is sick. For Sang, returning to the gymnastic world is out of the question after the fall that fractured two vertebrae in her back during a routine vault practice at last year's Goodwill Games. For Liu, who was diagnosed with leukaemia in April and has since been bed-ridden at the People's Hospital in Zhuhai, her chances of becoming an athlete again are remote. A major difference is that Liu is being kept in the dark about the possible end of her athletic life. She still hangs on to the dream upheld by many of her fellow trainees at the famed Zhuhai Sports School, who put up with rigorous training in the hope of making it to national sports teams. She waits for a bone marrow transplant that could save her life. The chances of recovery for young leukaemia patients are quite high, say doctors, but relapse is also a danger after the transplant. A top athlete in Guangdong province and leader of the Zhuhai Women's Weightlifting Team, Liu set high goals for herself after she left her parents and impoverished home village in Sanzao, on the outskirts of Zhuhai, in 1995, for enrolment in the Zhuhai Sports School. While they missed their youngest daughter, Liu's parents, who eke out a living selling vegetables, took pride in her being accepted by a state-endorsed institute responsible for grooming the country's sports talent. The coach for the Zhuhai Women's Weightlifting Team, Ma Jianping, who teaches at the school, spotted Liu while he was scouting for talent. 'She told me not to worry when she left home,' recalled her mother, 47-year-old Liu Meiying, at her bedside last week. 'She is tough. She knew nothing about weightlifting before going to the school.' Ms Liu is open about her hope of seeing her daughter become famous in the weightlifting arena. 'She has always wanted to do the best. She said she should since her teachers and fellow classmates have been so nice to her.' Looking pale in bed in her own hospital room, Liu speaks in a soft voice. She lacks the strength to sit up in bed without support. She complains that her vision is deteriorating. Liu's doctor is unsure about her chances of survival. 'Cancer cells have spread to her brain. We'll just try our best to save her,' says Chief Medical Officer at the hospital, Dr Sun Dachuen. Ma, meantime, has spent a lot of time ensuring the best treatment is available to Liu, and has put his teaching duties on hold to concentrate on seeking funds for the bone marrow transplant expected to be carried out for Liu in Guangzhou. Last week, partly due to his efforts, the hospital invited a cancer expert from Guangzhou to examine Liu. The expert confirmed the need for continual chemotherapy to bring Liu's condition under control. Yet Liu's problems have not dampened her desire to be an outstanding athlete. She remains hopeful about representing the mainland in international competitions and ultimately at the Olympics. Sang's much-publicised tale of recovery has inspired her. 'It is very touching. She was kept strong by plenty of encouragement and support from others. So am I,' she smiles, expressing delight over a visit by the city's deputy mayor Yu Yungngai. 'For an athlete to have to withdraw from the scene all of a sudden is very difficult to bear. Sang Lan looks strong on the surface, but she must have gone through many difficult times. 'I feel much better now with the support of my coach and teachers. I was so afraid of not being an athlete again. They urged me on by telling me to concentrate on fighting the disease.' Sang - at 17, just a year older than Liu - spent 10 months rehabilitating in New York, during which she enjoyed visits and attention from world famous celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio and singer Celine Dion. Her progress was well-reported by the American media. Christopher Reeve, the paralysed actor, sent her an encouraging letter praising her courage and heroism in facing up to her traumatic injury. Two former American presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, each gave her a cuddly toy to cheer her up. LIU'S circumstances form a startling contrast. With one cuddly toy - a gift from an American friend of Ma's - to adorn her gloomy hospital room, Liu spends time quietly in the company of her parents, teachers and school friends. Liu is unlike most teenagers. Focused on her sports, she says pop idols have very little place in her life. With little interest in outside entertainment, the training school lifestyle, which includes classes in the morning in between different sessions of physical training, is what suits her. Given a choice, the only celebrity she can think of whom she would like to see at her bedside is internationally known kung fu actor Jackie Chan. And the reason is easy to understand: 'Because he is brave.' She became fascinated by weightlifting as a child. 'I found it incredible when I saw women athletes doing weightlifting on TV,' Liu says. 'Many people don't know much about it. It has got a lot of mysteries. You need to do it with speed and sensitivity. Those who appreciate it are aware of the great speed involved. Those who excel in it can even complete the task gracefully.' Having been the second runner-up in this year's All-Province Most Outstanding Athletes Contest, she has not thought of doing anything else. 'I am glad to be an athlete, not just for the sake of obtaining honour for Zhuhai. It can allow me to make a name, to join in competitions abroad. The place I would like to go most is America.' She admits to having scant knowledge of the country, and says she knows little about the protests that broke out against the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. But her fondness for the country, under the influence of her coach Ma, is unlikely to be swayed by such events. Ma came sixth in the weightlifting competition in the 1984 Olympics Games held in Los Angeles. An easygoing man, Ma has a good grasp of English and once served as a national coach for the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. He is both a fatherly figure and confidant to her. 'I told him all sorts of things,' Liu smiles. Ma sees in her the potential to be a star weightlifter. His commitment to building up her athletic skills has now been matched by his work to help her recover. Ma says her brother and sister are willing to donate their bone marrow, though tests have not yet been conducted to see whether they are suitable donors. But doctors have said that what matters most now is to ensure Liu remains in stable condition. Due to the limited supply of anti-cancer drugs in Zhuhai, he made trips to Guangzhou to get the drugs Liu needs to survive. 'We have a responsibility to help her,' Ma says. 'She has been with the school for so long that we all have feelings for her.' Intensive coverage of her illness by the Zhuhai media has fuelled public concern for the girl from a poor peasant family. Over the past week, donations have poured in from ordinary citizens and entrepreneurs from even neighbouring Macau to help meet the cost of the transplant, estimated at $250,000. Liu's schoolmates collected donations on the streets over several weekends. So far, $160,000 has been raised. In a way, Liu is more fortunate than others. While many other patients in Zhuhai and elsewhere across the mainland are denied proper medical treatment due to lack of cash, Liu's athletic achievements have won support from many. One organiser of the Save Liu campaign, Zong Yungqi, a programme editor at Zhuhai Television and a member of the Zhuhai Young Volunteers Association, said he felt compelled to help raise funds for her. 'Many people need help, but for an athlete like her who has trained very hard for years, we can't leave her alone when she is sick and has no money. Besides, I was moved by her coach's heavy commitment for her.' Zong has offered to donate his bone marrow, but in the meantime concerns himself with raising money. 'We probably have to reserve some money for her future since she may not be an athlete again,' he says. Dr Sun thinks that is almost certain. 'Never mind going back to weightlifting, it is very unlikely that she can return to the athletic arena after her recovery. The life of an athlete is very exhausting and her immune system will be weak.' Liu has yet to be told this. But when the possibility of an end to her athletic career was brought up in the interview, she responded calmly: 'I would study hard to be a teacher. A sports teacher so I can help groom new talent.'