The wonder of Yu: Paralympic fencer's power of positivity

Story highlights

  • Fencer Alison Yu Chui Yee has seven Paralympic gold medals to her name
  • The 28-year-old from Hong Kong had part of her leg amputated when she was 11
  • Yu says she forgot to strike a signature pose after winning gold in London
  • Yu: "I think the most important thing for your life, is the way you interpret things"

The only tinge of regret Alison Yu Chui Yee has from another prodigious Paralympic campaign is that she didn't take a leaf out of Usain Bolt's book.

Another two fencing gold medals at London 2012 took her tally to seven overall, enhancing her reputation of one of Hong Kong's greatest ever Paralympians, and she had planned to premiere her very own signature pose at the apex of her latest triumph.

But the 28-year-old, who jokes she only took up fencing because she was promised there would be plenty of "handsome guys" on show, missed the chance to showcase her own version of the Jamaican sprinter's move because she was too immersed in battle.

"I watched the Beijing Olympics and saw so many champions when they won try to do so many signature postures," she told CNN's Human to Hero series.

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"I did think 'What should I do if I get the gold medal in Beijing? Should I kiss the blade or hug the coach?'

"Finally (when I) knew that I won, I just took off my mask with a facial expression that my friend said looked like I had just woken up because I was still concentrating!"

Her celebrations might need some work but Yu's pedigree in the noble art of fencing is indisputable.

Diagnosed with bone cancer in her left leg at the age of 11, Yu eventually had to have part of it removed. After making the move to fencing from swimming, she was instantly transfixed, rising through the ranks to make her Olympic debut at Athens, Greece, in 2004, aged just 20.

The sport, based on attack and defense with swords, has a heritage that some claim dates back as far as 1200 BC, due to the discovery of several ancient Egyptian carvings detailing duels involving combatants with blades and wearing masks for protection.

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After being enticed along to her first lesson by a friend who promised a bevy of attractive men to look at, Yu was transfixed.

"In the very first lesson, I didn't see any handsome guys but I felt fencing was so cool because the costume is all in white and you have to wear a mask. It's just so mysterious. It reminded me of the movie 'The Mask of Zorro.'

"After that I found fencing does not only have a good appearance, but also the strategy and the technique is very interesting. You have to use your physical strength together with your mental strength. I think it is so challenging and I love it."

Fencing remains one of only four sports to have featured in every modern Olympic Games since 1896 but Yu's first thought when she arrived at the world's biggest sporting event at the age of 20 was about hamburgers, not history.

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"I was so excited," she explained. "Everything was just so new to me.

"I heard there's a restaurant open 24 hours and a fast food shop which you can take all the food that you want free of charge. I couldn't wait to eat so many hamburgers!"

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That excitement was also transmitted to Yu's performance as she bagged a gold medal in all four of her events in 2004, both as an individual and as part of the Hong Kong team in the epee and foil categories, which use different blades and scoring systems.

Wheelchair fencing sees athletes compete in a chair that is fixed into a frame and fastened to the floor. Points are scored by landing a blow with the tip of your sword on an opponent in epee and foil.

Yu excelled in both fields of combat.

She's taken part in nine fencing events in her Paralympic career to date winning seven golds, one silver and one bronze.

After the relative disappointment of winning only one gold in Beijing, where she had to settle for silver in the epee, Yu bounced back to win both her individual events at London 2012 despite a difficult preparation working with a new coach -- during which she had contemplated quitting the sport.

"I was so depressed. I'm quite an optimistic girl, and I can hardly imagine that I cried a lot at that time. After training I would just go back to the room and cry because I didn't know what I was doing and the training atmosphere was just not very good."

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However, cheered by her teammates and helped with her training by able-bodied fencing colleagues, she got back in the groove and had a successful Games, also winning bronze in a team event.

"When I came back, I just bought them a very big meal and shared my happiness with them."

Yu's record makes her one of Hong Kong's most successful Paralympians, and that fact leaves her bursting with pride.

"Whenever I see the Hong Kong flag is flying in the sky, not because of anybody else, because of my efforts, I think it's the most proud time of my life," Yu said.

"I was the first female fencer in Hong Kong who captured four gold medals in the Paralympic Games (in Athens).

"When I came back to Hong Kong, so many reporters and journalists were waiting for us and interviewing us, and I thought 'Wow, I just looked like a Hollywood star!'

"I am so proud of being a Paralympian because I think the Games are a very good platform for disabled persons to perform themselves.

"Within the Paralympics movement, it's not just talk about excellence, it's not just talk about the competition, it's also talk about the equality and how your world accepts those disabled people."

Yu's infectious character explains why she's had little difficulty in overcoming the treacherous obstacles that were placed in front of her at such an early age.

A dedicated, passionate athlete, away from fencing she is relentlessly positive, something that has driven her through cancer and onto a clutch of gold medals.

"When I had bone cancer, I was just 11 years old. I think my parents suffered a lot because they worried about my health, my life, so much," she said.

"For me, it was quite bad feeling during the treatment. But I quite enjoyed staying in the hospital because so many kids played with me.

"Every time when I talk about this memory, my mom scolds me because she says, 'Come one, no one like hospital life, only you.'

"I think the most important thing for your life is the way you interpret things. Having an optimistic point of view is so important -- your life will be so bright."