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April 12, 2020

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Paralympian gets her ‘legs’ back

MEET Yao Fang, the woman who unsheathed her sword at the perceived injustice that life had inflicted upon her.

The former Chinese wheelchair fencing Paralympic champion, who hails from Shanghai’s Jinshan District, became paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident in 1998.

She was wheelchair-bound after surgeries and subsequent rehabilitative therapy failed to restore senses and strength to her lower limbs.

“I was distraught then. My world came crumbling down,” she told Shanghai Daily. “The future was like a nightmare.”

At some point she even lost hope in life, until wheelchair fencing came along and put the broken pieces back together for her.

In 2002, she was recruited into the newly established Shanghai Wheelchair Fencing Team.

Yao, who never considered herself athletic, adapted to her new role as a wheelchair fencer with surprising speed and adeptness.

After only three months of training, she participated in the Far East and South Pacific Games that took place in Busan, South Korea in 2002.

She finished 4th in the women’s individual category B competition and clinched a bronze medal from the team competition.

The results were a shot in the arm, revealing to her the infinite possibilities that awaited her.

The grueling training that followed saw her rapidly rise to athletic prominence, winning a “grand slam” as she reigned at China’s National Games, Paralympics and Wheelchair Fencing World Cup. Her tears flowed freely the moment China’s national anthem played in London, after she won a gold medal in women’s individual foil event.

“When I saw the national flag rising, all these years’ pain and hard work had paid off,” she said.

Her participation in the Beijing, London and Rio Games in 2008, 2012 and 2016, respectively, also made her one of the few Chinese athletes to compete in three consecutive Paralympics.

“The car accident and the few years thereafter were the darkest chapter in my life,” she said. “But I managed to regain confidence thanks to wheelchair fencing.”

After retiring from the sport following the Rio Paralympics, she now works as a librarian at a vocational school in Shanghai.

Occasionally, students would invite Yao to speak about her sports career and share her life experience.

Drawing on 20 years of life’s highs and lows, the 48-year-old former fencing champion says the biggest advice she can give is “never give up on yourself no matter how bad the situation is.”

Wheelchair fencing has taken her to places she could only dream of visiting in the past.

“Wheelchair fencing effectively broadened my horizon,” she said. “In this sense, it’s like a blessing in disguise.”

Through years of competition across the world, she also came to meet friends and opponents who later became friends.

Among them is Jin Jing, also a Jinshan native and a wheelchair fencer.

Jin has been widely recognized for her bravery in beating back attempts to wrest the Olympic torch during the Paris leg of the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch relay.

“She is younger than I, but joined the fencing team earlier, so I affectionately called her shi jie (older female apprentice),” Yao chuckles.

She is now used to a life of earned comfort. Between jobs, she spends time on hobbies such as baking, stitching and drawing. She even participated in a wheelchair marathon once.

Yao never stops yearning for the life of a person without special needs. For this reason, she regularly visits industry fairs and scours websites in search of products and assistive devices that can make her life easier.

By a stroke of luck she came across exoskeletons from Fourier Intelligence, a firm based in Shanghai’s Zhangjiang High-tech Hub.

It specializes in the design and manufacturing of mass-market rehabilitation robotics.

“I didn’t expect to find a company making such exoskeletons in Shanghai,” Yao said.

She applied for and was accepted to trial the wearable device, which can be worn like a suit and is designed to assist victims of impaired mobility in lower limbs.

After five trial sessions, Yao said she was deeply impressed by how the device could help paralyzed patients and rebuild their shattered lives.

“If you wear an exoskeleton and stand for half an hour every day, it helps grow the muscles that have become emaciated from prolonged sitting or lying,” Yao said.

The former world champion is now adapting to her new life on the exoskeleton and the sheer sense of empowerment it offers.

As she gets familiar with the device, it takes her only a few minutes to wear and remove it.

She recalls once wearing the exoskeleton on a visit to the Shanghai wheelchair training center, where she was surrounded by curious onlookers and enthusiastic ex-teammates.

“They asked about the user experience and price, and all expressed admiration at the way technology can help us disabled people,” Yao said.

Now able to “walk” on her own with the assistive force provided by the exoskeleton, Yao says her life is so much different now that she can greet people at eye level.

“After my leg muscles gain more strength, I’ll have bigger confidence in myself,” she said.

“Hopefully, exoskeletons will benefit more disabled people.”

In the future, Yao says she expects the exoskeleton to continue to work wonders on her. A possible application is in performing day-to-day tasks, such as making promenades or trips to the grocery store and supermarket on her own.

“I learned to reconcile myself to the unexpected harshness of destiny after I fell in love with wheelchair fencing,” she said.

“Now I want to explore the many more possibilities that lie ahead with the exoskeleton.”


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