FEATURE: Running back to sunshine

HONG KONG (China Daily/ANN) - Some people never get over losses but a group of amputees in Hong Kong has found a new lease of life - by learning to run. 

Irene Yu Kuk-ying, 59, has become an inspiration because of her determination - coming back from the tragedy that changed her life and made her the fighter she is. Some people never recover after cruel setbacks. Yu lost her leg when she was 18, just starting in college. Today, she's running - maybe only 200 meters a day but that's OK, as long as it gets done.

Yu shares her photos on social media every day, which have earned her 2,400 fans on Facebook. Her followers praise her as outgoing, resilient and cheerful.

Yu started running in February. She'd never run after the accident on Valentine's Day decades ago. It was the day she was to have reported to Guangxi University. Admissions had been rescheduled for the next day, so she strolled the campus, thinking about the future, and what college life was going to be like.

The campus had a water tower. Some students were standing washing their hands. As Yu walked past, the tower crashed to the ground. Instinctively, she pushed aside a young man ahead of her, but was buried in the ruins herself.

Yu fell into a coma until she woke up in a clinic. She couldn't feel anything, but a relentless dream of two friends calling her from somewhere. She did not know then that her friends, who were also at the scene, were dead, buried in the collapse of the tower.

When she regained consciousness, she saw blood gushing from her leg. "I did not cry. I reassured my family and told them not to be afraid, then lost consciousness again," Yu said.

Peonies were her favorite flowers, the red-purple ones. To her, they were a symbol of life with their lavish, blood red petals. When the time came for the surgery to amputate her shattered leg, somebody brought her a peony. Her mother recalled that she had gripped the blossom until the liquid ran down her arms but Yu hung on and shed no tears.

It took nearly two months before Yu could make any sense of the world again. The first thing she remembered was peonies, everywhere, in every part of her room. Then she recognized she had no right leg.

"If the window were not beyond my reach, I would have committed suicide," Yu said.

What happens to a person who loses a leg? Of course, it put a hard limit on Yu's mobility but it also took away her confidence. They fitted her with an artificial leg. It seemed pretty close to the real thing, but it wasn't the same.

Once she started living again, she started a career in sales and excelled at it, but her dreams were all gone. Memories of what happened to her and her friends hung over her like a dark cloud, wherever she went.

"I'm not willing to go in disguise, as an amputee. I just can't do that," Yu said.

The clouds hung for years that turned into decades. Then just this year, she summoned the courage to take the three-day Running Clinic. It wasn't until the last day that she ran, for the first time in over 40 years. She called that day "one of the most meaningful days in life".

Running is the panacea

The Running Clinic, by German prosthetics company Ottobock, enrolled 16 amputees this year. Enrollees were taught to walk and run as if they had no impairment at all.
The clinic's trainer was Heinrich Popow, a German Paralympics gold medal sprinter. He knows that lack of self-confidence is the biggest stumbling block for amputees to learn to walk and run normally. "They just don't believe they can do it like other people," Popow said. But he believes running is a panacea for them.

"If you can finish a sprint, there is no difficulty going shopping with your wife and kids. Sports are something above daily life. It is especially critical for amputees to regain the confidence," Popow said.

He asks trainees to set a goal and run every day and don't start raising questions or doubts that may destroy their initiative.

Yu, without much hesitation, set her goal at 500 meters. She started in the playground with Popow. "I almost cried when my legs started to run. Feelings that had been lost for so many years came back and became unforgettable," Yu said.

She found peers and even role models at the Running Clinic. She met Camel Fung Kam-hung, 65. He was the first in Hong Kong to be fitted with running blades, after they were introduced in the city some 10 years ago.

Fung was a primary school physical education teacher. A traffic incident 38 years ago ended that career. He lost his left leg. "As a person in a sports-related occupation, I probably experienced more frustration than most after the amputation," Fung said. "I had to give up my career and become a clerk. I felt I was being wasted."

It took him more than two decades before he found the blades. "The light, elastic blade makes running easier. I starting taking up sports activities," Fung said many times, as he told his story.

Distance running became Fung's solace and compensation. His legs no longer felt useless. Better still, he learned he could measure up to full-bodied people, maybe do better.

When he retired, Fung joined a 100-kilometer hike. He finished a half-marathon. Then he signed up for a competition - a seven-day, 250-kilometer trek across Chile's Atacama Desert, teaming up with his wife and a friend. Fung was the first-ever amputee to finish the Atacama Crossing. He and his two companions also won the team competition. People talked about how Fung showed terrific resilience facing many trials over the long walk. They hadn't gone far before Fung found a crack between his prosthesis and the sole of his hiking boots. They'd gone some 40 kilometers with a long, long way to go. "I had to go all the way to overcome my limitations. Though my performance wasn't up to what I'd hoped, after that, I had to continue," said Fung. He trekked over peaks and through valleys for more than 200 kilometers, on his prosthesis, held together with glue and tape.

As an experienced racer, Fung agrees, determination is a big thing but there's a lot more. To compete hard, racers need systematic training, stretching to the edge of their limits. They have to pace themselves and stay within their limits.

"The more I train, the more I trust my prosthetic leg. Amputees are like other people in sports. They need training and sportsmanship," Fung said.

Running gave Fung a new life. Fung, his wife and their friend called their team "Five Legs Never Quit". Not only did they stay the course, they returned and made the long march across the Gobi Desert in northwestern China last month. They're going to compete in next year's desert crossing.

Fung said he couldn't stop running once he got back into it. Yu kept her promise to keep on running. She's been out every day since joining the workshop.

Yu acknowledges the pain. "Amputees suffer from friction between the stump and the prosthetic limb." But she takes the pain and keeps on. "As long as I can run, I will keep running. It is a way for me to train the body and mindset living in a respectful way. It's become an essential part of my life," Yu said.

Everyone lives through some kind of loss and suffers the pain. Sometimes, time heals all wounds, sometimes not. Yu and Fung feel whole again, having found a new way of life through running. The pain still hurts - but it's accompanied by joy and pride of accomplishment.