Updated: 2008-06-06 11:25
Twelve-year-old Qian Hongyan looks like a Subbuteo player when she is out of the pool and a little mermaid when she is in it.
But even Walt Disney could not have imagined the life story of China's double amputee swimming prodigy, who has a removable basbetball where her lower body should be.
"I think living inside a basketball is fine," the freestyle specialist whom local media have nicknamed 'Basketball Girl', told China Daily by phone. "I can do everything other people can do. I can even run, just very slowly."
Eight years after getting mangled under the wheels of an overloaded truck, China's predicted future Paralympic star has become a symbol of hope for a country still scarred by images of children escaping debris in Sichuan province with their limbs missing.After losing both her legs at the age of four, Qian picked up what was left of her life and is now set to compete at the 2010 Asian Paralympic Games in Guangzhou and the London 2012 Paralympics.
"She's one of the best Paralympic swimmers in China for her age, easily world top 10," said Zhang Honggu, who started the South of the Clouds Swimming Club for the Disabled in Kunming, Yunnan province, where Qian trains.
"She is still fresh to the sport, having barely spent one year in the pool, so we're not taking any chances with her," added coach Li Keqiang. "We don't want to do anything that may damage her confidence."
When she came to the swimming club, the first of its kind in China, last August, she was "weighed down with sorrow, quiet, and introverted," said Zhang. "Now she is outgoing and cheerful."
Her story is an antidote to the tales of woe that followed the May 12 earthquake which tore through China's mountainous heartland.
"I just remember when I woke up, my legs felt very cold," Qian said of what happened in Yunnan's Qujing city on Oct 21, 2000, days after Kylie Minogue kicked off the 2000 Sydney Paralympics with a rendition of the hit song "Celebration."
"I said, 'Mum, put my shoes on for me,' but my mum didn't say anything. Her tears fell onto my face and I found that, for the rest of my life, I wouldn't have to wear socks, or shoes, or even pants again," the China Police Daily quoted her as saying in 2005.
Her mother felt guilty because, when the truck hit, Qian had been rushing to fetch a key to their house from nearby field. One of Qian's friends made it to the other side of the road. The other did not even make it to hospital.
Some time later, her grandfather spotted a broken old basketball while visiting relatives. He sliced it open and dropped her inside, like a pot plant.
"He brought it home and put me inside it. The first time I got inside, I felt very, very happy. I thought it was awesome," she said.
Now Qian serves as a striking metaphor in a country that has seen its international sporting prowess highlighted by NBA star Yao Ming: she is a future star athlete who is literally growing out of a basketball.
Qian's story and the recent success of foreign stars like Oscar Pistorius and Natalie du Toit promises to raise the profile of the Paralympics, which is often regarded as little more than a footnote to the Olympics.
Du Toit, a one-legged swimmer from South Africa, made history in recent weeks by qualifying for the Beijing Olympics, while compatriot Pistorius, a double amputee sprinter, won a lengthy legal battle to become eligible for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Both have helped blur the boundaries between differently-abled and able-bodied sports stars.
"All of us have an iron will," said Qian. "Maybe that is because we have disabilities and we have experienced so much."
At South of the Clouds, China's primary training base for its Beijing 2008 Paralympic squad, Qian said she discovered a level playing field.
"No one stares at me here because we're all the same."
Her best friend is training partner Han Dan, who has no hands. Wei Mei has returned to her orphanage, and Qian does not know if they will meet again.
"I used to envy my classmates a lot. After school, they always went back home running and jumping, but I can't do that. But when I'm in the water, I'm the same as them, and this is the reason why I love swimming."
"It's very difficult to keep my balance in the water because I don't have legs, so my bottom swings around. That's the biggest problem for me."
These days she uses artificial limbs at times, which she needs to change every year, but she prefers the basketball.
"I also need to change it every five or six months, because it gets rubbed down when I'm walking.
"If one day I grow too big to live inside it, I'll just use a wheelchair. But the wheelchair is so inconvenient. I can't get up the stairs in it."
At the end of the day, she will do whatever it takes to make her stronger.
"I want to win medals, a lot of gold medals, the more the better. Right now my only dream is the Olympics (Paralympics)."
In this regard, China's little mermaid is no different from the rest of its athletes.