Thursday, September 11, 2008

Guides aid visually impaired Paralympians in quest for gold

Wu Chunmiao, a blind Chinese runner, was thrilled to win a Paralympic gold medal, but regretted that her guide runner, who helped her to win, couldn't get one as well.

It is common for athletes to credit families, coaches or friends for their success, but the Paralympians who are visually impaired may have more people to acknowledge -- their guides.

On the podium, Wu placed her gold medal, earned from women's 100m T11 on Tuesday, around the neck of her partner Li Jiayu.

Paralympic rules allow runners and cyclists with visual impairment to be helped by guides in their competition. In running, the athletes and their guides are tied together with strings around their wrists or fingers. In track cycling, the guide rides on the front of the bike while the athlete pedals at the rear.

The athletes work hard to push for their limits, and guides aid them alongside. But rules have been put in place to keep such aid in check to ensure equality. For example, a guide runner can not cross the finishing line ahead of the runner and a guide cyclist can't be chosen from the top-calibre athletes who are believed to be over-enabling.

Before the men's 100m final, Chen Liang, a guide, told his partner Liu Xiangkun where to put his hands at the starting line, and helped Liu to face the right direction. He also kept murmuring to Liu: "Relax, relax."

A string was tied to their hands as the two sprinted down the track in tandem. When the scoreboard flashed a near-personal best for Liu at the fifth place, Chen reported the scores to Liu as both were gasping.

"I work as his eyes. I follow his rhythm. And my job is to make sure he doesn't cross the lanes or foul in any way," said the guide. Chen is not discouraged by his supporting role, but prides himself in representing his country together with a Paralympian, and helping him to perform to his best.

It is true that sports are about individual feats, but the Paralympic Games have aptly proved that they are also about the cooperative spirit. The outpouring of brotherly love brought about by the bond between the guides and the athletes has become one of the most touching scenes at the Beijing Games.

"He is not my brother by blood, but I should say that he is more close than a brother," said Liu Xiangkun of his guide.

The two started training together just about nine months ago. Before having Chen as his guide, Liu had to train by following the hand-clapping sounds of his coach. A competent guide helped him to break the national record earlier this year and move closer to the world record.

Both Liu and Chen said they are like two people in one. "We train together, eat together and share the same dorm," Liu said.

Both were grateful to each other. "I only had to run out there, and he was the one doing all the thinking. And when I get moody during the training, he talks through," said Liu of his guide.

Meanwhile, Chen said that through training with a Paralympian, he has learnt more about how to overcome adversities. "He is a man with will and guts. He is not young, but still manages to keep himself in excellent form. That's what I admire in a Paralympian," Chen said.

For the Paralympians, the guide is a trusted planner. "Barney is a very good tactician. To be the fastest in the world, you have to be very honest with each other," said partially-sighted British rider Anthony Kappes, who won a gold medal on Wednesday with the help of his guide Barney Storey.

The two use non-verbal languages and signs to communicate with each other, and often sit down to analyze technical details, Kappes said.

The guide is also a close friend to the athletes they help. Kenyan runner Henry Wanyoike put a strong performance with his guide to win a bronze in men's 5,000 meters T11.

"We are childhood friends," he said. "We've been training together for seven years."

Sometimes, the role of a guide is taken up by family members of the athletes. For example, Brazilian T11 women's 100m bronze winner Adria Santos has her husband as her co-pilot.

"He is not only my guide in the competition, but also in my life. We are always hand in hand in our lives and it's our fate to be together, both in competitions and life," she told a news conference.

Sometimes, the guide is also the interpreter for the athletes. French judoka Cyril Jonard, who has little sight and poor hearing due to the Usher Syndrome, answers questions through his trainer Patrick Lacombe. The two communicated in a sign-tactile language that is unintelligible to others.

Lacombe was not exactly on the mat competing along with Jonard, but he made movements with his arms besides the mat to guide the Judoka on when to attempt a throw or a footsweep.

"When my coach is on the carpet, he can communicate with me, he can work with me," said Jonard, who also teaches judo to able-bodied children.

Lacombe said he can forward information for his protege, but Jonard himself is also well integrated into the world of full-hearing people. "It's easy to be a good coach when you are dealing with a grand champion," said Lacombe.

The "duet" won a silver in the Judo 81kg event at these Games.

Source: Xinhua

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