How ‘basketball girl’ became a Paralympian
Teen, born into poverty, overcame odds and disability to compete on world stage
Disabled swimmer Qian Hongyan made a real splash at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Although the 19-year-old finished 9th overall in the 100-meter breast stroke SB5, her story of resilience continues to move people around the world.
In 2000, the then 4-yearold Qian was hit by a truck in her hometown of Majie, Yunnan province, crushing both her legs.
“I just remember that when I woke up, my legs felt very cold,” Qian told China Daily in a 2008 interview. She said she would lay on her back all day with nobody to talk to following the accident, feeling like the whole world had collapsed in on her. “It was a dark time,” she said.
Her impoverished family could not afford proper prosthetics, so her grandfather improvised — cutting an old basketball in half to support Qian’s lower body and giving her a pair of wooden paddles that allowed her to walk on her hands.
She became a national sensation and received the moniker “basketball girl” after her story and photographs were published far and wide.
Later, with the help of donors and officials from the traffic bureau, Qian went to Beijing and was given free artificial limbs. Thanks to extensive physical therapy, she can now walk 1 km in 16 minutes carrying a 5-kg backpack without assistance.
In August 2007, swimming coach Zhang Honggu, who had established China’s first swim club for the disabled, saw Qian’s potential and encouraged her to join.
She became one of the club’s first members.
But learning to swim was hard. “Without legs, she is like a ship without a helm. It is hard for her to control her orientation and balance,” Zhang said.
Despite the setbacks, Qian never gave up. She got up at 7 am every morning and trained for five hours each day.
“I used to envy my classmates a lot,” she said. “After school, they always went home running and jumping, and I couldn’t do that. But when I’m in the water, I’m the same as them, and this is why I love swimming.”
In 2009, Qian was selected to join her province’s swim team and won three gold medals in the 9th Yunnan Provincial Games for the Disabled. That same year, she took one gold and two silvers in the under-18 division of the swimming competition at the National Games for the Disabled before going on to claim three silvers at the following year’s competition held in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province.
With so many medals under her belt, Qian’s next wish was to compete on the world stage. In preparation for the 2016 Paralympic Games, she swam more than 10,000 meters everyday.
Finally, in April, she received her invitation to join the national team. “I was so surprised when I heard the news. All I could think about was training hard and getting a good score,” she said.
Although she didn’t make it to the final round at the Games, Qian said she was satisfied with her performance and learned a lot.
Now, the “basketball girl” has become an outgoing, friendly woman filled with youthful exuberance.
“As her coach, I always want to help her, but Qian needs to figure out how she will support herself in future. I hope she can truly assimilate into society,” Zhang said.
“Seeing how much she has changed though, it seems all the hard work was worth it.”
Qian Hongyan and her coach Zhang Honggu at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.