Paralyzed gymnast's Olympic spirit still burns bright for 2008

Sang Lan raised her arms shoulder high, the gestures growing more animated as she talked about next year's 2008 Olympics.

She carried the torch three years ago for the Athens Games. It could be even more stirring doing it at home next year, part of a journey that will take the Olympic flame to five continents in 130 days.

"I was so lucky to take part in it before," Sang said, brushing the hair off her forehead. "I would consider it a top honor to do it again."

Similar to her sweeping arm gestures, Sang's use of the word "luck" belies her condition. Once a promising Olympic athlete, she sits in a black wheelchair outside her dormitory at Peking University, paralyzed from her upper chest down after her spine was injured nine years ago.

Attempting a forward vault in a warmup at the Goodwill Games in New York, one of China's strongest young vaulters lost control in midair _ distracted, she said, by a rival coach who approached the landing area. She struck the ground head first.

A national heroine when the accident occurred, Sang remains famous. The 26-year-old has been a TV talk-show host - "Sang Lan Olympics 2008" was part of Beijing's successful bid committee - and had a miniseries produced about her life.

She should be one of the most visible faces of next year's Olympics, hoping to get to every venue "to see every event," trying to make up for the Olympic gold she never had a chance to win.

"When I was injured I suddenly realized I had no chance to be in the Olympics," Sang said. "The first thing that came to mind was: 'This is the end. I can never be an Olympic athlete."'

Sang's spirit in the face of her devastating injury made her a celebrity in New York during almost a year of rehabilitation. She and then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani pressed the button that sent the famous ball in Times Square on its ritual descent on New Year's Eve. And Tipper Gore presented her with an award for courage.

"I'll never forget my 10 months in the United States," Sang said, using English occasionally but preferring Chinese. "The Americans showed me their love and made me feel warm. When I felt lonely, they gave me a huge, warm hug. It was massive support for me."

Dr. Kristjan T. Ragnarsson treated Sang at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center, and he wrote emotionally about her in a recent e-mail. He has been treating spinal cord injuries for 36 years and called Sang among his "most inspiring" patients.

"Her difficult experience, outgoing, friendly personality and success as a disabled person in China is likely to be an inspiration to other people with disability, the competing Olympians and, in general, the people of the world who cannot be but touched by her spirit," Ragnarsson said.

"Knowing her own prognosis, she showed nothing but courage and exceptional spirit. In contrast to many other people with such devastating injuries, I can't recall that she ever appeared depressed, angry or blaming anybody or anything for her injury."

Sang talked openly about her injury a few weeks ago, just days after two promising young Chinese athletes - gymnast Wang Yan and national team volleyball player Tang Miao - suffered similar spinal cord injuries. Both face the possibility of permanent paralysis.

Wang broke her neck in a fall from the uneven parallel bars in China's national championships. Tang broke his neck crashing into a barrier as he was trying to keep a ball from going out of bounds in a match in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"I still watch gymnastics on TV," Sang said. "People think it would make me depressed, afraid TV would remind me of how I was so badly injured. That's not the case. I just want my life to be bright."

"You have to have a very clear idea of what you are going to do next when you are doing such a discipline," Sang added. "You know how serious you will get hurt if for one split-second your mind wanders. But it's you and not anyone else who chooses this sport, so you have to be brave enough to face all the dangers."

Sang has been.She finishes her college degree in journalism this summer, and classmates say she's never received special treatment.

Fellow students routinely carried her to upper-floor classrooms in the gray-brick university, little modified for students like Sang. In classrooms without air conditioning, she mops her forehead with a cold towel or eats ice cream. The chest-down paralysis damaged the nerves that control body temperature. This means constant discomfort during Beijing's steamy summers.

A scarred, wooden wheelchair ramp leads to the front door of her dormitory - an improvised device she had built.

"She teaches you what it means to be strong-minded," said Huang Jian, who looks after many of her personal needs and business affairs. "She never once has asked for special treatment."

Added classmate Fan Min: "She's fun to be with and smart, but the emotional exchanges with her are the most lasting."

Though she can move her arms, her hands are rigid and withered. When she offers a handshake, she can't respond with a grip. She clasps small sticks in her hands to type on a computer. But because of her iconic status, stories circulate that she might compete in pingpong in the 2008 Paralympics.

"This is not possible, her hands would not allow this," Huang said.

Sang has a motto that is certainly true in her case: "Nobody's better than a gymnast at recovering from a fall."

"There are lots of activities, promotions I am taking part in before the Olympics," she said. "I even found the dream is better than before. You never give up. You have to stick with it and work very hard and keep moving forward."

Toward the 2008 Olympics.