Gymnast Remains Optimistic Despite Her Injury
BEIJING — Sometimes, after the vault that broke her neck and robbed her of the ability to walk, Sang Lan couldn't help thinking about what might have been.
Seventeen months after her accident at the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York, the former champion Chinese gymnast still can't feel her fingers and body from the chest down. But she says she has come to terms with her injury.
No regrets, she says, just a determination to make the most of life — attending a university and getting a job.
Sang's optimism is infectious. Because of it, the most striking thing about her is not her broken body or the custom-made chair that she wheels herself around in. It's the determined twinkle in her dark eyes, the childlike lilt in her voice, and her impish sense of humor.
In a two-hour interview at her Beijing home, the 18-year-old never once sounded bitter, regretful or even unhappy. Just the opposite.
When she says she expects to one day master how to better care for herself, you believe her. And it seems to make perfect sense when she explains that she follows a daily regimen of physical therapy in part to keep her body in shape for the day when doctors can cure paralysis — a day she's sure will come.
"When I had just gotten injured, I did think 'What would I be doing if I hadn't got hurt?' But now I don't think about it," she said. "Regrets are pointless. This is the way it is. I have faced up to reality. I can't change it."
"Of course, I hope that I will be able to walk," she said. "That, of course, is my biggest, biggest, biggest, biggest wish."
Sang injured herself doing a warm-up vault. She returned to China in May, after 10 months in the United States where she underwent surgery to stabilize her neck and began rehabilitation that helped her regain some movement and strength in her shoulders and arms.
Sang's accident and medical treatment in the United States were widely covered by Chinese newspapers, some of which portrayed her as a national heroine. But the media attention has tailed off since her return, as Sang has settled into a routine of therapy and studying.
Her life revolves around a comfortable, small Beijing flat that she shares with her mother and a hospital across the road where physical therapists teach her how to perform tasks that used to be simple —such as putting on socks.
On one wall in the flat, photos of Sang competing as a gymnast are prominently displayed. Other walls are covered with photos since the accident, including many of Sang with famous people she met in the United States — Celine Dion, George Bush, Jackie Chan, Christopher Reeve and scores of others.
Above the computer Sang uses to write her diary, plan her lesson timetable and e-mail friends and well-wishers. There hangs a photo of Sang looking adoringly into the eyes of Leonardo DiCaprio, who visited her in the hospital and gave her a "Titanic" poster signed: "Sang Lan, all the best in the world, love."
"He's very handsome in the movies. He's handsome in real life, too," she said.
Sang manipulates the computer's oversized mouse with the underside of her wrist. To type, she clips two plastic pointers, like shorn-off chopsticks, onto her hands with her mouth. The telephone next to the computer has a hook on the receiver to slide her hand through and oversize numbers, also dialed with her wrist.
"I can't grasp a telephone because I can't move my fingers," she said as she gave a demonstration. "The big buttons make it convenient for me to dial. I wouldn't be able to press them if they were smaller."
Sang says she can wash, brush her teeth, dress and eat breakfast in about an hour. Her mother helps her with showering and going to the bathroom, which has a ramp for Sang's chair. Five mornings a week she goes to the hospital for two hours of therapy or, on Wednesdays, massage.
Her mother says she has noticed progress. Sang can now move from her bed to her wheelchair and back again with ease and says her arms and shoulders feel more flexible than before. She's overcoming a shortness of breath, in part with the help of a small musical instrument with a piano-like keyboard that she blows into to make sounds, building up her lungs.
Not since Sang was 8 years old have she and her mother spent so much time together. That was when Sang moved from her native Ningbo, in eastern China, to a provincial sports school in nearby Hangzhou to continue her gymnastics.
She started at 5, when a gym coach visited her kindergarten and picked her because "he thought my legs were very long and beautiful, that my body was small and slim and that I was suitable to do gymnastics," she said.
Her training still helps her, she said.
"We athletes are all very strong. Training used to be very tough. That I have such a good spirit and strong will now is perhaps, I think, inextricably linked to the fact that I used to be a gymnast," she said.