We shall overcome
The Chinese women's national wheelchair basketball team practise their maneuvers at the China Disabilities Training Center (CDTC). Photos : China Daily
They come from all walks of life, but they go to London with a common aim - to test their physical limits and competition spirit with the world's best. In Beijing.
The athletes are aged from 15 to 50 and include farmers, students, soldiers and the self-employed from every part of China. A total of 282 Chinese sportsmen and women will compete in the London 2012 Paralympic Games from Aug 29 to Sept 9, together with 4,200 other athletes from all over the world.
About half of our athletes are now training at the China Disability Sports Training Center in Beijing. Built in 2007, it is the world's largest such sport facility and falls under the auspices of the China Administration of Sports for Persons with Disabilities (CASPD).
Jiang Fuying, 24, is one of the athletes in training. In the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, Jiang won the gold medal for the 50m butterfly stroke event and broke the world record.
She was a late starter and did not learn how to swim as a child even though she grew up along the Yangtze River. She was born with amyotrophy, a result of polio, and grew up in an orphanage in Jingzhou, in Central China's Hubei province.
"At school, I had a strong inferiority complex and was reluctant to communicate with others. Swimming changed my life," says Jiang, who learnt swimming in a week. In 2002, she joined the provincial swimming team.
"Swimming is a challenge for a disabled person, especially if the handicap is in the arms and legs.
"It means the athletes have to expose their disabilities, but in return, it make them more confident when they overcome it," says Zhang Honghu, coach of the Chinese national swimming team of athletes with disabilities.
Zhang, known as the "godfather" of handicapped swimming in China, has been the coach of the national team for two decades.
In London, he will be attending his sixth Paralympics.
"At the Barcelona 1992 Paralympic Games, the whole of China's delegation had only 34 athletes," Zhang recalls.
In 1992, China won 11 gold medals and was ranked 11th on the medal tally. In 2008 at the Beijing Paralympics, China won 89 gold medals and topped the ranks.
"Our improved performance reflects China's growth in the promotion of welfare for people with disabilities," says Wang Weiping, the general director of CASPD.
Over the past two decades, these changes are most visible in Zhang and his swimming team.
"In 1996, we couldn't afford to rent an indoor swimming pool to prepare for the Games, so we found an outdoor pool even though it was winter," Zhang says.
"We covered the pool with plastic sheets like a green house, and boiled water to generate steam to keep warm."
A disabled swimmer trains at the natatorium of the CDTC in Beijing.
Now, the natatorium at the training center includes a standard pool with world-class facilities such as an electronic timing system, a LED screen and a pressure-sensitive starting platform.
There is an underwater observation window, another training pool beside changing and shower rooms and technical analysis rooms.
Better facilities for training means better chances at winning, Wang says.
Li Duan, a professional basketball player before he went blind and lost two fingers in an accident 1996, is a veteran champion of the long jump and the triple jump events at various sports competitions for the disabled.
"Sports was once my life and still is," says Li, who has been training at the center since March with his coach Jin Fan for the upcoming Paralympics.
Recalling his winning moments, he says: "I can't see the national flag rising, But I can hear the national anthem."
For Fu Yongqing, 33, playing basketball has opened up a completely new world. The mother of two lost both legs in a traffic accident in 1995 in her village in Yunnan, Southwest China.
The center of the national team of women basketball for the disabled says she did not know anything about the game when she was talent scouted in 2006.
"I thought somebody had to push the wheelchair while I played," says Fu, laughing.
Fu was recruited into the national team in 2007. She played in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games and also participated twice at the World Wheelchair Basketball Champions in United Kingdom.
Xu Yuanshen is a former player with China's national basketball team in the 1970s. He has been coaching Fu and her teammates since 2006.
Working with them, he not only plays the role of mentor and coach, but often, their logistics officer.
"We have 12 players, each of them has a normal wheelchair and a special one for basketball. So whenever we play abroad, we are traveling with 24 wheelchairs," says Xu, who needs to look after both players and wheelchairs.
"It is a tough job, but seeing how basketball has injected vitality and courage into their lives and given them confidence ... that's enough for me."