By Peter Stebbbings and Jessica Yang
Tears fill Gui Yuna’s eyes as she describes losing her right leg in a road accident aged seven and school bullies kicking away her crutch to make her fall.
But they would not dare do that now — the 35-year-old is a prize-winning bodybuilder and former Paralympian whose inspirational story has gone viral in China.
Gui, who competed in long jump at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, is new to bodybuilding but won the first time she competed in October.
Images of her strutting on stage in a high-heel shoe and bikini — all while leaning on her crutch — featured heavily in Chinese media and won her a sizeable online following.
With her steely determination and positive attitude she has been feted as an inspiration in a country where disabled people are all too often marginalised.
“It’s possible that I won first place not because of my professionalism or muscles, but because of my confidence and bravery to stand on the stage and show myself to everyone,” Gui said.
She spoke following an intense workout at a Shanghai gym, sessions that she regularly posts to her 200,000 followers on TikTok.
Gui has almost no memory of the fateful day when she was hit by a truck as she came home from school.
But she cannot forget how, as a young child with only a stump where her right leg used to be, children at school tormented her by kicking away her crutch or yanking away her chair as she sat down.
“They called me a cripple or ‘three-legged cat,” said Gui, tears welling in her eyes, even though this was nearly three decades ago.
“Most of the time it was abusive language like that and sometimes physical abuse.
“The first time they made me fall I cried, but then I got used to it and I thought: you can bully me however you want, but I’ll be fine because I have a brave heart.”
Gui, who is from the southern city of Nanning, was raised by her mother because her father died before she was born.
The odds were stacked against her but Gui’s athleticism matched her determination and in 2001 she became involved in paralympic sports, going on to represent China at the 2004 Games, finishing seventh in her long jump category.
She also did high jump and later archery, and took part in the torch relay for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games and Paralympics.
‘Thankful for hardships’
After retiring from competition in 2017 Gui endured yet more discrimination in the working world, rejected by employers who said she didn’t match their “image”.
“(They were) implying that I’d damage their image,” she said.
“I applied to nearly 20 companies and all of them said the same thing.”
And while many online commended her after her bodybuilding debut, where she dazzled in a traditional high-necked qipao dress and beat able-bodied rivals, there were a few dissenting voices telling her to stay at home.
Occasionally people on the street ask Gui what happened to her right leg and she is taken aback — missing a limb is so normal to her now that she no longer thinks about it.
Gui’s crutch is always close at hand but she appears to have few troubles negotiating everyday life.
“Many people think that fate was unkind to me, but I don’t think so,” said Gui, who after the initial rejections is now a partner at a company specialising in home decoration.
“I am thankful for having these hardships.
“Why do I say that? Because of this I grew up, it made my heart stronger and made me what I am today.”