Jesse Yang Mengheng lost both arms at the shoulders as a child but that did not stop him pursuing a life in sport. Endowed with athletic talent, he seemed destined for the highest stage, but injuries and bad luck ended his professional sporting career. Yang then excelled academically, graduating from an elite university and earning an MA from Cambridge. Now 30, he is also an inspirational motivational speaker and educator. “Yi bai tu di” is a Chinese saying that means a defeat that leaves you flat on the ground. Yang tells his life story in terms of such defeats – four, along with two triumphs. Yang was born near Kunming in Yunnan province, in a family of schoolteachers. At the age of six he climbed an electrical transformer and was electrocuted: “When I woke up several hours later, my arms were burnt. Doctors had to amputate them to save my life.” He learned to write and eat using his feet. “It took me about three months. It is easy to learn at a young age.” Some kids at school “mocked and bullied” him because, using his feet, he wrote and ate much slower than they could. But he was a faster runner, beating them at races. The feeling of movement made him “forget his inferiority”. His athletic talent was obvious and at the age of 10 he was sent to a sports boarding school – ti xiao – to become a runner. It seemed like a good idea to Yang – “I loved sports and did not want to study.” . At 14, Yang ran a 56-second personal best in 400 metres and great things were expected from him. Then, the International Paralympic Committee suddenly cancelled his disability category and Yang was no longer needed as a runner. “Yi bai tu di” – a crushing defeat, the first one. “It took me two months to recover (from the shock),” he said. “It was my dream to win a Paralympic medal.” He got over it because he had a new goal. A swimming coach gave him three months to learn how to swim. Then, Yang was told, he would do a trial to be considered for conversion into a professional para-swimmer. Yang could not swim at all and only had his father to help him learn. “We went to a swimming pool every day. The hardest part was to learn how to stay afloat and breathe. I learned by drowning,” he joked. “Once I got my head out of the water to breathe, I would go down.” The first woman amputee to summit Everest shares her story Three months later, Yang passed his trial and was readmitted to sports school. After four years of intensive training, Yang was preparing for the 2007 National Paralympic Games, national qualifiers for the Beijing Paralympics. He was expected to qualify and then do well on the highest stage. But a month before the National Games, Yang sustained a foot injury, caused by overtraining with fins, and had to stop training. Still injured and out of shape, he came sixth in the games and missed out on selection for the Paralympics. Defeat number two. “It was like lightning hitting me. The Paralympics was my motivation to stay positive. My future collapsed,” Yang said. It took him half a year to pull himself together. Now 17, he went back to normal secondary school. Yang found himself hopelessly behind his peers – his seven years in sports school were spent running and swimming. He was now the third-worst student in his year. “I failed as an athlete twice, and my only option now was schooling. I studied like crazy, not even wasting the time I was on the toilet,” he said. Chinese man who lost feet on 1975 Everest attempt finally summits peak In six months, he was third-best in his year. Two years later, he achieved the coveted title of Zhuang Yuan – top scholar – and was accepted into the elite Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou to study English. This, Yang says, was his first triumph. As a university student, he started delivering free lectures at schools: “sharing my story, my methods of learning, motivating pupils to work harder”. Gradually, he turned motivational speaking into a business. Yang set his sights on an MA at Peking University, ranked as one of China’s best. He was turned down. Defeat number three. He went back to Yunnan, enrolling in an MA at Yunnan University, and starting his own education company. The business failed. Defeat number four. Yang regrouped. He decided to go abroad for his postgraduate studies, but he needed money for tuition. “My parents offered to sell their flat, but I could not accept that,” he said. He returned to motivational speaking and published two books. Within two years, he earned enough for his tuition. Yang applied and was accepted by Cambridge University in England to do an MA in translation. This was his second triumph. Having returned to Kunming from England in 2018, Yang is an in-demand motivational speaker, working with financial and educational companies and schools. He has also produced educational courses – Superpower English Learning Methodology, Methodology of Efficient Study and Technique of Reversing the Start from Humble Beginnings. He still trains regularly, together with his former roommate in sports school, Wang Jiachao, whose ambition of a Paralympic triathlon title is now on hold after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were delayed for a year. Wang, 2012 Paralympic swimming champion, is introducing his old friend to triathlon. “He is an excellent runner and swimmer, but cycling is a problem,” said Wang. “We are trying to think of some kind of prosthesis for him to hold the handlebars.” Hong Kong surgeon runs Lantau 70 with Sichuan earthquake amputees Is Yang thinking of the highest sporting stage again, this time in triathlon? “I have a family and a job, so going pro is not realistic at the moment,” he said, before adding, “But, I like to push myself forward. I am competitive even now – it is in my blood.” So far, the tally stands at four defeats and two triumphs. Being such an indomitable competitor, Yang must surely want to even the score.