Spirit of Hong Kong

Paralysed athlete starts new career as motivational speaker after Lion Rock climb

Rock Climber Lai Chi-wai thought he had lost everything after going from being world number eight to a paraplegic, but he bounced back to become even better

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 6:21pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2017, 2:33pm

Five and a half years after Lai Chi-wai was paralysed from the waist down in a traffic accident, ending a glittering climbing career, he has found a new purpose in life teaching people about the importance of pushing on in adversity.

Lai, 34, visits schools around Hong Kong several times a month to give talks on his experience of going from being a world-class athlete to a paraplegic.

In 2011, Lai was at the top of his game. He was ranked eighth in the world as a professional rock climber and had won gold at the Asian Games four times.

But in December that year, things went wrong. Lai was involved in a traffic accident while riding his motorbike home. He does not remember any details from the accident, but what he does remember is waking up in hospital, after more than 10 hours of surgery, with his life completely changed.

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“I felt pain everywhere and I couldn’t move because I was connected to so many machines,” Lai said.

“I couldn’t feel anything below my belly button. My lower body had become paralysed.”

Lai said the hardest thing to accept at first was not the fact that he couldn’t climb, but something more basic. He found it really difficult to cope with losing his independence – in particular, when it came to going to the bathroom and having to ask his family and friends for help.

While it was tough at the beginning, Lai said he was motivated by the fact that his wife was about to give birth, in the same hospital he was recovering in. With his wife and unborn son in mind, he hauled himself out of bed and into a wheelchair.

By 2014, Lai was back in athlete mode, and training for what seemed impossible. He was going to climb Lion Rock, in his wheelchair.

Lai invented a system of ropes and pulleys for his wheelchair to be able to scale the mountain too. In 2016, five years to the day since his accident, he climbed to the top of Lion Rock. It took three hours and a team of almost 40 people.

Lai had planned to climb overnight, but the near-impossible feat was achieved in a near-impossible time.

“It was more exhausting than I had imagined. When I got tired, I rested and had a look at the view. The last time I had climbed Lion Rock was before the accident, so I really thought about how different it was to be up there this time. I had a chance to think about life.”

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Lai’s wheelchair climb up Lion Rock is well known, but what he really wants to be known for is his ability to overcome what life threw at him. Because of that, he has spent the past few years teaching young people about bouncing back from adversity. Lai gives talks about once a week at schools, telling students his story. He hopes to be an inspiration to them, he said, to let them know it is important to continue to reach for their dreams even if things get tough.

“My goal is to visit every single school in Hong Kong over the next few years to tell young people my story. I tell them not to give up, and that it is up to them to build a life for themselves.”

Lai has also written a book about his experiences, with the same goal in mind. Although it was not something he had planned to do at first, he later learned that his book had really helped other hospital patients in recovery. Written like a journal, the book has sold well and is now on its fifth edition.

For his ability to rebound from adversity, Lai has been nominated for the South China Morning Post’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards in the Overcoming Challenge category.