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Sang Lan's schooling on wheelchair
( 2003-11-27 08:31) (eastday.com)

Paralysis from the chest down hasn't stopped former gymnast Sang Lan. The young woman has signed with Star TV to host her own television show and is working with sportswear giant Nike to give more disabled people access to sports.

Sang Lan's father escorts her to the Beijing University campus. [File Photo]
Getting thirsty is a problem for Sang Lan. She can not twist off the bottle cap and pour mineral water into a cup. She can't even hold the cup properly. She no longer has the dexterity in her fingers.

Still, her fingers are just a small part of Sang's troubles. The days of twirling, vaulting and somersaulting before audiences are long gone.

It has been more than five years since the former Chinese national team gymnast injured her spine, paralyzing herself after landing head-first during a practice vault at the 1998 Goodwill Games in Long Island, New York. Although the accident occurred more than five years ago, Sang has shown no signs of improving.

Nonetheless, the 22-year-old fights the physical and psychological barriers with courage and without complaint.

``I understand the chances are slim that I can't restore the mobility of my body in the foreseeable future,'' says Sang, who can't feel anything from the mid-chest down and is restricted to a wheelchair. ``But I won't give up.''

She's certainly not sitting around feeling sorry for herself. The smile that helped gain her fame, along with her athletic ability, still beams from her face.

Last week, Shanghai residents were given the chance to see it once again as she attended the launching ceremony of a Nike-sponsored campaign promoting sports for the disabled in the city. Of course, everything Sang does involves more effort.

The Zhejiang native has three hours of rehab exercises each day -- just to keep the muscles in the arms and upper part of her back functioning.

If a cure can be found in the future, it's important to keep the intact part of her body healthy. The wait has been and continues to be tortuous, not only for Sang but also for her family.

``I was not willing to attend any press conferences concerned with my daughter in the early days after the tragedy,'' confesses Chen Xiufeng, Sang's mother, who resigned from her job at a steel company to take care of her daughter.

``It is Lanlan's optimism and courage that keeps me going and makes me realistic.''

People still recall the televised images of Sang's smile that captured hearts around the world in 1998 immediately following the accident.

Sang remained in the United States for 10 months of medical care.

Americans admired the diminutive Chinese girl, who persevered through the nightmare with incredible composure. Americans even scrambled for Sang Lan dolls, specially made for the then 17-year-old, and listed online at a price up to US$20 each.

Everybody who's visited Sang personally, including movie star Leonardo Dicaprio and singer Celine Dion, has been impressed with her attitude under the circumstances of unspeakable affliction. It's only natural that Nike is teaming together with Sang. Organizers of the event are convinced that Sang's gallantry and optimism help build confidence in other physically handicapped individuals.

``I understand from my own experience that disabled people are eager to be identified as a member of the community,'' says Sang.

``I can't think of any way better than sports for that kind of integration.''

Funds donated by Nike have been used to install custom ramps, wheelchair accessible bathrooms, plus interior and exterior handrails in the Shanghai International Gymnastic Center, which hosted the Far East and South Pacific Table Tennis Championship for the Disabled last month. Although Sang's injury stems from gymnastics, she and her family don't regret the decision to take up professional sports.

``Before the injury it never occurred to me that she has such strong will,'' says Chen, who, with her husband, sent Sang to a gymnastics training camp in her early childhood to make the young girl stronger.

``Now we share the view that the tough training played an important role in the shaping of Lanlan's character, which is vital for her to deal with the disaster.''

Sang is going to be a frequent visitor to Shanghai for other reasons aside from the disabled sports mission.

The Mandarin channel of Star TV, financed by Rupert Murdoch's media consortium, signed Sang to host a sports show entitled ``Sang Lan Olympics 2008.''

It hits the air next spring. She is passionate about the job because of her own athletic background, but also because she's now a full-time sophomore journalism student at the prestigious Beijing University.

``You have to be very energetic when it comes to television program production,'' says Sang. ``Guess what? I once worked as long as 12 hours in the studio.''

She isn't concerned about the long working hours and the potential damaging effects to her fragile body. ``I love the feeling of being busy,'' she says with delight. ``It helps me forget about the unpleasant part of life.''

The unpleasant part is also, to some extent, cruel. Her mother says they haven't seen any improvements in her condition despite Sang's hard work.

The only hope is for a miraculous breakthrough in medicine. Behind the eloquence and the confidence though, Sang admits she does fear the future. Still she prefers to stay positive.

``The care and tenderness I've received has been overwhelming,'' she says.

``I will never forget the moment Dicaprio appeared in my ward in New York, or the moment I dropped the Times Square ball for New Year's Eve 1999. Those moments encourage me to strive for a better life. I hope I can walk again, but if not, I can handle it.''

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